Trouble began for Peressini when he sent in his application for a fire-safety inspection certificate, an act many businesses in his building did not even bother complying with. Nonetheless, it is the law, and Peressini attempted to follow it. The municipal ordinance book said nothing about marijuana zoning — and in zoning theory, when the law says nothing, all is allowed. But a month after Peressini applied, the city returned his application and filing fee. Attached was a sticky note from a community-planning director, informing him to shut down his operation.
The next Peressini heard of it, the city attorney was bemoaning the dangers of mold and carbon dioxide gassing supposedly associated with cannabis cultivation and speculating on the threat of blight that dispensaries pose to the community. Medical marijuana may have been passed as a state law by the voters, but throughout the West cities are adopting strict zoning laws that shut down the legal-marijuana business.
“Bulls**t,” says Mary Jolley, the city commissioner who visited Peressini’s with me, when I ask her about the “blight” argument during a winter meeting of the Montana Republican party. She contends that the problems concerning marijuana are being blown out of proportion merely to give the city a pretext to regulate. “I oppose creating special categories for persons who are using a legal product, legally purchased and sold and grown,” says Jolley, who leans libertarian and was on the losing end of the 4–1 vote to retroactively ban all medical-marijuana businesses, including those that had already applied for city permits.
Peressini, the young owner of Medical Marijuana of Montana, has put his renovation plans on hold for the moment, but he still talks dreamily of buying a device that measures THC content in marijuana so that it can be further formalized, quantified, as a legitimate drug. Other large marijuana businesses in the state meticulously inventory and invoice their product. Caregivers frequently call for their produce to be taxed. For now, Peressini merrily operates in defiance of the city ban, and as he waits for zoning regulations to be finalized, he says he is contemplating taking his outfit across the county line or simply to an undisclosed location.
In many western states today, a considerable number of people have a legal right to grow, sell, possess, and consume marijuana. Whether they are frauds or not, revoking their smoking rights is not within a local government’s purview, and state legislatures have been reluctant to rescind what the voters have passed through the initiative process. One way or another, these legal users will conduct their trade. Either the legal-marijuana business will be carried out in the light of day, in a storefront business or other commercial property; or, if such properties are zoned out, users will revert to the template of the furtive drug deal. Here in Montana, regulation has tended to clamp a vise around the most legitimate tier of operators.
– Mr. Kavulla is a former associate editor of National Review. He lives in Montana.