Medical Marijuana – Ennis officials do their homework, craft ordinance that draws praise

With medical marijuana becoming more prevalent in Montana and Madison County, the Ennis Town Commission decided to be proactive in setting regulations on how the industry will be regulated inside the city limits.

Ennis’ new medical marijuana ordinance will go into effect Dec. 5 and some within the medical marijuana industry feel like it can be a model regulation for other small towns around the state.

“I thought it was a very reasonable ordinance for a smaller town in Montana,” said Jim Gingery, executive director of the Montana Medical Growers Association and an Ennis business owner.

It hasn’t been common in Montana for towns as small as Ennis to look into passing medical marijuana ordinances. However, the number of medical marijuana patients is growing in Madison County and the rest of Montana and without any regulations, Ennis wouldn’t be able to have much input as to where business would sprout up around town, said Becky Vujovich, Ennis Town Commissioner.

Vujovich spearheaded the drafting of the ordinance. She and other commissioners spent hours researching the issue, traveling to Bozeman to talk with city officials and soliciting input from local medical marijuana caregivers and patients.

“There are some local growers and patients in town and we did sit down and talk to them and they really did have some good ideas,” she said. “The growers and patients I know want to see it done correctly and want to see it done well.”

Medical marijuana became legal in Montana by a voter initiative in 2004. The law allows qualified patients and their caregivers to grow and/or possess a restricted number of marijuana plants. In Madison County 309 people have registered with the state as medical marijuana patients; 56 have registered as caregivers. The number of plants grown by a caregiver is restricted by how many patients they have.

The main thing Vujovich wanted to do was plan for medical marijuana businesses before one opened up on Main Street.

Some people have abused the medical marijuana law and it has caused problems in some towns and she and other commissioners believed a responsible and reasonable ordinance could help Ennis avoid issues other communities have faced.

“That was one reason we adopted the ordinance, it gives us the right to regulate it, maintain it and make sure it’s done correctly,” Vujovich said.

And Gingery became a surprising ally in the process to develop the ordinance, she said. In some cases he even pushed for tighter regulations.

“The thing that surprised me is that people within the industry came and said you need to make this more stringent,” she said.

But for Gingery it just makes sense.

He’s keenly aware of the public image issues the medical marijuana industry has in Montana.

Gingery is a businessman and believes that medical marijuana – or medical cannabis as he refers to it (“Our goal in the next year is to actually change the way people refer to it so they can differentiate between dirtweed on the street and true medical cannabis,” he said.) – is an industry that can help lift Montana out of the economic struggles currently facing the country.

“Medical cannabis is now a significant industry in the state of Montana. The income tax revenue that can be expected from the medical cannabis industry can help our budget,” he said. “The majority of caregivers are operating their business just like a real business because it is … The general public can relax that this is not an industry that’s out of control, it’s had a few people give the industry a bad name.”

Medical cannabis is essentially considered medicine, Gingery said. Patients have to have a doctor’s approval to get their card. As a medical industry, it should be regulated.

“We recognize a new industry, particularly one that’s selling product that’s considered as medicine needs to be regulated,” he said.

However, it’s important for the regulators to understand the industry and that’s what both Ennis and Bozeman did right in crafting their laws, Gingery said.

“I will tell you, I actually think the Ennis ordinance is probably the best one in the state right now and it’s superior to the Bozeman ordinance,” he said. “I hope that Ennis becomes a model for other small cities in the state as Bozeman is becoming a model for the large cities in the state.”

Getting educated on the medical cannabis industry meant asking a lot of questions, said Bozeman city attorney Greg Sullivan.

“We went through quite a lengthy process here, public wise, to get input from folks,” Sullivan said. “That was a major, major part of what formed the ordinances.”

Sullivan and people at the city gathered information from a wide variety of sources. They looked at other regulations in other communities both in Montana and outside the state.

“A lot of those different ideas were put in the mixer and we said ‘What will work here and what won’t work here?’” he said. “We came up with what we thought was a good solution for Bozeman.”

This August Bozeman’s medical marijuana ordinance went into effect. And though they haven’t had much time to live with it, the early indications are it’s a positive for the city.

“I think we got it right,” Sullivan said. “It seems to be working well right now.”

Vujovich and the other Ennis town commissioners spent a lot of time working with Sullivan and pouring over Bozeman’s ordinance. What Bozeman adopted became a basis for the Ennis ordinance, she said.

Ennis’ ordinance does some key things. It limits the number of businesses selling medical marijuana in town to only three. It also requires that businesses selling, growing or delivering medical marijuana in Ennis to get a license.

The delivery license is also part of Bozeman’s ordinance and was important, Sullivan said.

The Ennis ordinance also outlines where medical marijuana businesses can be located. They must be 500 feet from any school and in a commercial area. Home-based businesses are not permitted.

Medical marijuana businesses also must have fire protection and security systems. The security systems must include electric alarms along with indoor and outdoor surveillance cameras, as well as a safe to store any product held in the business overnight.

Medical marijuana businesses must also under go inspections to ensure they’re abiding by the regulations.

The main difference between the Ennis and Bozeman ordinances is that in Bozeman using medical marijuana in public is a criminal offense. The Ennis ordinance says that no one may use medical marijuana in a common public place or in an open and visible manner.

“The medical cannabis community is cooperating entirely and has no desire to medicate in the face of non-patients,” Gingery said.

The future of medical marijuana in Montana is going to be impacted a lot by the next legislative session that begins in January, he said. It has become one of the most important issues in the state.

Currently, no medical marijuana businesses have registered in Ennis and no one is really sure if and when that will happen. But if someone does want to open up a store on Main Street, they’ll have clear guidelines on what the town expects from them, Vujovich said.

“Overall I think that the commission is on board with this regulation and they felt like it was done correctly,” she said.

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