Commissioners say they haven’t set out to ban medical marijuana

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About two dozen proponents and patients of medical marijuana attend the public comment session of the Lincoln County Commission meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 24. The commissioners have been engaging in ongoing discussions to determine whether or how to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries in Lincoln County. (John Blodgett/The Western News)

For the third consecutive week, the Lincoln County Commission at its Jan. 31 meeting tried to calm the fears of medical marijuana proponents who had been speaking out or showing solidarity during periods of public comment, worried that the commissioners were planning to ban medical marijuana sales in Lincoln County.

The proponents’ concerns arose after the Jan. 3 Commission meeting, during which the commissioners signaled the start of an ongoing discussion to determine whether or how to regulate medical marijuana.

Since then, medical marijuana has not been scheduled as a discussion item on any Commission meeting agenda, and as of Monday morning it was not shown on any agenda in the coming months.

Still, advocates for medical marijuana — including patients and the owners of the local dispensary — have been attending subsequent meetings since Jan. 17 to make their voices heard.

The commissioners have stated they are not targeting either the dispensary or the patients it serves, but rather are fulfilling their duties as a governing body to understand their authority and determine how to proceed.

“It would be irresponsible of us as an elected body to not completely discuss and understand what the statute says” about how we deal with this, said Commissioner Mark Peck to those who assembled at the Jan. 31 meeting. “I have not heard any of us say, ‘By god, we need to shut this down.’ At all. It’s simply been a discussion.”

Peck added that no one has approached him and said that “you need to shut this down.”

“All the public comment that I’ve heard has been in support,” he said.

At all three meetings where proponents have gathered, many have mentioned the element of fear, whether it be fear of losing access to a helpful medication or a fear that causes unnecessary concern.

At the Jan. 31 meeting, Libby City Council member Gary Armstrong pointed to the city’s recent voting down of an ordinance that would have allowed medical marijuana dispensaries to be located within city limits.

“I believe that decisions were made not on the basis of facts and truth but on the basis of fears within the community,” Armstrong told the commissioners. “There’s no rational reason that a marijuana dispensary should have any tighter controls than an alcohol establishment.”

Barbie Turner — co-owner of local dispensary Alternative Releaf, a fierce advocate for its patients and a fixture at local meetings where medical marijuana is discussed — hasn’t seen rampant fears from opponents, she told the Commission, but was wary of the uncertainty she felt about its intentions.

Turner pointed to meeting minutes and an article in the Kootenai Valley Record that suggested the Commission was seeking to ban the sale of medical marijuana within the county.

Such a ban would impact not only the business she co-owns with Jon Meister — causing them to go bankrupt — it would force their patients to find another provider, a process that could take months, Turner said.

Turner’s sense of urgency to know what to expect of the Commission’s decision was heightened, she said, due to a number of upcoming deadlines she and Meister have in relation to running their business and surrounding recent changes Montana has made regarding rules and regulations dispensaries must adhere to.

“I think there’s been fear here developed that’s unneeded,” said Commissioner Jerry Bennett, who has explained that he scheduled the Jan. 3 discussion after school and other officials raised concerns when Alternative Releaf sought to open its facility not far — yet sufficiently far — from Libby High School.

“I simply told them I would get that on the agenda to discuss,” Bennett said. “I understand your urgency but this is only one of a hundred different topics that were working on that are just as urgent, so just understand we’re not out here attempting to harm you, it’s just a frank open discussion.”

At the end of the conversation Turner expressed relief, and Bennett said that the Commission is not facing a deadline for determining what to do.

“It’s a process,” he said.

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