Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) With the number of marijuana dispensaries increasing in Missoula and the health impacts on the city’s youth growing, the City Council on Monday night hit pause on issuing any new business licenses for pot sales and imposed new sanctions on those who sell to minors.

The council issued a temporary moratorium on issuing a business license to new marijuana dispensaries two weeks ago and made it permanent on Monday, at least until the city can take a fresh look at how many and where a dispensary can be located.

Council member Gwen Jones said that decision will be included in the city’s code-reform effort based upon national standards and best practices.

“We’re going to work on reevaluating our buffer zones here in Missoula in terms of where any new recreational dispensaries can be located,” Jones said. “I think there will be attrition in the next year or two. Economics dictate that it will happen at some point. But having buffer zones in place so we can create the landscape we want to see in the long run is what the goal is.”

The proliferation of recreational marijuana dispensaries in Missoula has public health experts concerned. Back in the summer of 2021, the city was home to 42 dispensaries while the entire county had 45.

Now, the city has 51 dispensaries while the county as a whole has 56. Another eight dispensaries are seeking a business license and will be grandfathered in, given that they started the application process before Monday night’s official pause.

Leah Fitch-Brody, a substance abuse prevention coordinator with the Missoula Health Department, said the number of dispensaries in the city far exceeds recommendations set by the Institute for Public Health.

“They recommend one dispensary for every 15,0000 people. For the city, that would mean we would only have about 5 dispensaries,” Fitch-Brody said. “Youth who live within five miles of a dispensary tend to use more marijuana.”

Public health concerns

Health officials contend that the number dispensaries in Missoula and the ease of access have helped drive a sharp increase in negative health outcomes for youth. The introductory age for pot use among Missoula youth is 13 years old, and the number of hospitalizations is on the rise.

Since 2016, hospitalizations and emergency room visits for children between 0 and 14 years has jumped 142%, health officials said. For those ages 15-19, it has increase 15% and for those between 20 and 24, it has risen 23%.

Jacqueline Kline, also with the Missoula Health Department, said more than half of the city’s youth who seek treatment for substance use disorder do so for marijuana use.

“We’re seeing a decline in IQ, an increase in anxiety and depression rates, an increase in suicidal ideation, psychosis and schizophrenia is also associated with this as well,” said Kline. “Youth use of cannabis in Missoula is significantly higher than what we’re seeing at the state level.”

Along with the number of dispensaries, the potency of the product now being sold is also a concern, experts said. Twenty years ago, the average THC content in cannabis was around 5%. It’s now more than 30%, Kline said.

“The perception of harm has never been lower, but the actual risk has likely never been higher,” she said. “Part of the reason for this is because of the concentration of THC in the products that are being sold today. There is no cap on the concentrates. This isn’t the same marijuana we were seeing a couple decades ago.”

The pause on new dispensaries passed on a 7-2 vote with three members absent. Those opposed said the city should let the market run its course, or that it should focus equally on other harmful products.

Under Monday night’s action, the city will no longer issue business licenses for new marijuana dispensaries. It also imposes criminal sanctions on those who sell or give cannabis products to those under the age of 21.

That also passed on a 7-2 vote, with council members Daniel Carlino and Sandra Vasecka opposed.

City Attorney Ryan Sudbury said the federal government has shown less interest in pursuing low-level marijuana crimes and, under state law, distributing to minors is a civil penalty, making it hard to enforce locally.

Adding such offenses to city code makes in locally enforceable, he said. The city has taken similar action on other sections of law including fair housing and the Clean Water Act.

“It’s not entirely unheard of,” Sudbury said. “We do have provisions for underage sale of alcohol to minors. We copied the code section on that into this. We have in the past adopted duplicative regulations.”

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