Medical marijuana continued: perspectives in Libby

Libby Councilwoman Kristin Smith. Right: A selection of the various medical marijuana offerings at Alternative ReLeaf in Libby. Photos by Moira Blazi.

By Moira Blazi

This last August, city councilwoman Kristin Smith, along with the committee she chaired, put forth a resolution to the city council to legalize the sale of medical marijuana within the city limits.

That proposal was the result of over six months of work on the part of the committee. Many public meetings were held and countless hours of public testimony were heard and taken into account. Many planning board meetings also addressed the subject, and in the end the Lincoln County planning board unanimously endorsed the initiative.

The motivation behind  this effort was purely a legislative response to the passing of the state initiative a year earlier.

“The citizens of Libby voted 63% in favor of the state ballot initiative” said Smith. She added that the state legislature had spent a lot of time honing and vetting the initiative, and that new guidelines had just been issued by the state for it’s implementation.  She expressed feeling that there was a mandate of sorts for the council and said, “we are a representative form of government.”

Smith and the committee were careful to address concerns regarding zoning, proximity to schools, hours of operation, and packaging requirements in the initiative, and finally, the city council voted to reject the proposal, with a vote of three to two.

The issue remains one that is hotly debated. Besides Smith, the other council member that voted for the ordinance was Gary Armstrong. Armstrong moved to Libby from Washington state in  2016. His wife is a local musician, and a Libby native. According to Armstrong, coming to Libby from a state where marijuana has been legal for four years has influenced his perspective.

He told The Montanian that he had seen firsthand how it is working in Washington state.   He has seen violent crime, including domestic violence go down. Alcohol use has also declined, and the state has gained millions of dollars in tax revenue.

Regarding the recently defeated local ordinance, Armstrong said he thinks it could have passed if the zoning requirements had been less restrictive. He also expressed that it was a mistake propose allowing dispensaries only in the very small and highly residential medical district of Libby.

Acknowledging the lively controversy, he said “If the medical marijuana resolution demonstrated nothing else, it showed how special interest groups can hijack a conversation simply by shouting.”

He sees a dispensary as a simple retail store. “..there’s nothing about the business that’s unique,” he said. He shared a belief that marijuana should be a regulated substance just like alcohol, and that dispensaries should have restrictions similar to those imposed on bars.

One of the three council members who voted against the ordinance was recently re-elected councilman Gary Beach. Beach said one of the reasons he voted against the resolution was the idea of restricting dispensaries to the medical district. He says that many residents of the largely residential medical district approached him and told him they did not want a dispensary in their neighborhood.

They expressed concerned about increased rates of crimes like burglary.

Beach also pointed out that much of the property within the medical district is owned by Cabinet Peaks Medical Center, which is a federally funded institution, and leasing to a dispensary could be very problematic for them.

Beach said it is hard to regulate medical marijuana on a local level, when on a state level, the regulations are still in flux. He shared his feeling that the state is not ready for legalized marijuana, and that there are many thorny issues yet to be wrestled with such as the exposure of minors in a household to marijuana that is being  legally used medically by their parents.

The Flathead valley Chemical Dependency Clinic is in a unique position to deal with this issue. They are contracted by the state to treat those with chemical dependency problems, sometimes this includes marijuana.

Yet, if someone uses legally prescribed marijuana, the clinic’s policy is that they will not be turned away. The counselors at the clinic understandably declined comment, but they did provide The Montanian with the clinic’s practical, official policy regarding medical marijuana patients.

The policy states “Because medical marijuana is a prescribed medication by a medical physician, the  Flathead Valley Chemical Dependency clinic views this circumstance as it would any client who presents for treatment with a prescription medication.”

They require that the patient’s treatment be actively managed by a physician, and of course that the client does not show up under the influence or use of marijuana on the premises.

Lincoln County Sheriff Robbie Bowe takes a very pragmatic approach to the issue of medical marijuana. When contacted by phone for a statement, he simply said “I think there is a definite place for medical marijuana use if it is closely monitored by an appropriate doctor, but besides that, I am against recreational use.”

Overall, everything seems to be working. People like Gary Armstrong can legally use marijuana for treatment of acute and chronic pain. He worked for  years as a machinist which left him with several broken body parts and other injuries. In addition to the pain, he also suffers from significant tinnitus (ringing in the ear), which marijuana helps control.

He is the only council member who has been to one of  the local dispensaries, and he shared that he has made an effort to get other officials to witness them firsthand as well. According to Armstrong, Police Chief Kessel and City Judge Lucille Briggs both visited and were favorably impressed.

As more and more states legalize both medical and recreational use of marijuana, and laws in Montana continue to evolve, it is good to have city and county officials who continue to monitor the situation with flexibility and openness.

As of November 2017, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) website shows 21,881 patients with current enrollments in the Montana Marijuana Program.