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Billings voters to decide on recreational marijuana dispensary prohibition in Nov. 2 election

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Posted at 11:33 PM, Aug 09, 2021

BILLINGS — In an election scheduled for Nov. 2, Billings voters will decide whether to allow recreational marijuana dispensaries into the city limits after the Billings City Council approved the ballot language at its Monday meeting.

The Council's move toward an election on recreational dispensaries comes a week after a similar decision failed at a Yellowstone County Board of Commissioners meeting. About a month ago, the Council directed city staff to research ballot language in preparation for the possible failure at the county level.

Billings Mayor Bill Cole said for him, the decision hinged on whether the voters had truly spoken on the issue in the 2020 General Election.

Last year, Montana voters passed Initiative 190, a short ballot question that legalized marijuana across the state. Then the Montana Legislature crafted House Bill 701, a considerably longer law which solidified the rules for legal marijuana in the state. The bill gave much of the power over legal marijuana implementation to city and county governments.

"I do not feel comfortable inserting my judgment for the judgment of those voters on this question of dispensaries. I'd like to hear what the voters have to say because whatever happens here is likely going to set the course of our policy maybe for the next 30 or 40 years and I don't want Steve Zabawa back there saying to me, 'Why didn't you let the voters really tell us exactly what they want,'" Cole said.

A marijuana bud begins to form on a plant at Montana Advanced Caregivers medical marijuana dispensary in Billings.

Zabawa is the executive director of SAFE Montana, a group opposed to marijuana legalization, and attended the Council meeting. He spoke during the public comment period and said I-190 was backed in 2020 by millions in advertising and Montanans didn't get an accurate depiction of how legalization would actually shake out.

"If if was a fair deal and it was an accurate deal, I wouldn't have any problem with that. That's the problem, it wasn't fair, it wasn't accurate. And now it is. If you put it up to the city of Billings, I believe a majority of the people will not vote in favor of it," Zabawa said.

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Steve Zabawa, SAFE Montana executive director.

SAFE Montana and another group, Wrong for Montana, filled a lawsuit last year to overturn I-190, alleging the initiative went against the Montana constitution and took away the Legislature's soul right to appropriate tax revenue. The lawsuit was voluntarily dropped in June this year, according to Yellowstone County News.

The Council voted 6-3 to approve the ballot language in a vote that had its order randomized by the clerk pulling names written on slips of paper from a cup. The random vote was taken to stop any possible, "last minute strategizing," Cole said.

Councilmembers Shaun Brown, Roy Neese, Pam Purinton, Penny Ronning, Frank Ewalt and Mayor Bill Cole voted in favor of running the election. Councilmembers Denise Joy, Danny Choriki and Kendra Shaw voted in opposition. Councilmembers Mike Boyett and Mike Yakawich were absent from the meeting.

Medical marijuana dispensaries will not be effected by the outcome of the city's recreational dispensary ballot question.

Regardless of the recreational dispensary question's outcome, the Council will still have to tackle the regulation of six other types of marijuana businesses at a later date. The business types include medical marijuana dispensary, manufacturer, cultivator, testing laboratory, combined use license dispensaries and transportation.

The council will have to decide how many of the businesses are allowed and where they can be placed in the city.

City Attorney Gina Dahl shared new information about how much tax revenue Billings is estimated to see after the tax revenue starts to come in from legal marijuana. The influx of tax money hinges on another Nov. 2 ballot question, this time from the county.

If county voters approve a three percent local option tax in the form of two separate questions for recreational and medical marijuana sales, the share Billings would recieve amounted between $250,000 to $350,000 per year, Dahl said.

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Gina Dahl, Billings city attorney.

Billings City Administrator Chris Kukulski noted the estimate relied on numbers compiled by the state, and accounted for the total per year tax revenue brought in by the fifth year of legalized marijuana.

Dahl broke down how the sale of $100 in marijuana would be distributed if the 3 percent local option tax was approved by voters. Billings would get 91.8 cents or a 31 percent share. Yellowstone County would get $1.50, or a 50 percent share. Other cities in the county would get 43.2 cents, or a 14 percent share and the state department of revenue would get the last 15 cents, or a five percent share.

On the same ballot coming up Nov. 2, the city will ask the voters to approve a public safety mill levy that would bring in an additional $7.1 million to the city per year.

Watch the complete Council meeting in the video below.

RELATED: Yellowstone County resolution to re-vote on recreational marijuana fails