Great Falls couple files suit against marijuana sale ban within city limits

By: - June 27, 2022 4:10 pm

A marijuana activist holds a flag during a march on Independence Day on July 4, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Members of the group Fourth of July Hemp Coalition gathered outside the White House for its annual protest on marijuana prohibition which the group said it dated back to more than 50 years ago during Nixon Administration. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A Great Falls couple filed a lawsuit in district court Monday challenging the ban on cannabis dispensaries within city limits. 

The suit argues that according to House Bill 701, which addresses recreational marijuana implementation in Montana, counties and cities can put further rules and regulations on marijuana sales. However, Great Falls’ outright ban of sales within city limits is in violation of state law because cities and counties can only ban sales through a local referendum vote, which has not happened in Great Falls or Cascade County.

“State law allows dispensaries to operate legally in Great Falls, unless the citizens of Great Falls say otherwise through an election,” the couple’s attorney, Raph Graybill, said in a press release. “The city’s ban violates state law and goes against the clear will of the people.”

Janelle and Dale Yatsko have operated Green Creek Dispensary outside city limits for 14 years, where they started with medical sales, according to court documents. They were licensed by the Cannabis Control Division through the Department of Revenue to grow and dispense adult-use cannabis soon after the passage of recreational sales statewide in 2021.

The couple then filed a Safety Inspection Certificate application with the city of Great Falls to allow them to operate in a location within city limits in February.

But City Manager Greg Doyon denied the Yatsko’s permit application in March, citing how the federal law on marijuana sales has not changed and a city ordinance passed in 2010 prohibited the sale or production of marijuana within city limits. Along with these arguments, Cascade County Commissioners voted unanimously in February 2021 to limit zoning for dispensaries to two I-2 heavy industrial zones outside of Great Falls city limits.

Green Creek Dispensary already faced legal issues operating outside of the I-2 zones prior to this suit. In November 2021, District Court Judge Amy Eddy issued a temporary restraining order stopping Cascade County from fining the Yatskos for zoning violations, which Cascade County has since appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.

Five days after the city manager denied their permit application, the Yatskos appealed the decision to the city commissioners. At their April 19 meeting, the commission voted 4-1 to deny the appeal and make a referendum for Great Falls to opt-out of recreational marijuana sale for the November ballot. According to Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Sun Prairie, individuals are already working on collecting petition signatures to bring the question to broader Cascade County, which need to be collected by Aug. 25 to appear on the November ballot.

In November 2020, Cascade County voted with 54.7% in favor to approve Initiative-190, which legalized the growth and sale of recreational marijuana in Montana as of Jan. 1, 2022. In accordance with HB 701, the state legislation on adult-use cannabis, Cascade County is a “green” county, meaning the majority of its voters voted in favor of recreational legalization, and can only fully prohibit production and sale of marijuana through a ballot referendum election.

The Yatskos argue since the couple already has their recreational marijuana license from the state and Cascade County is a “green” jurisdiction, they should be able to move forward with their second operation within Great Falls city limits.

The suit asks for a preliminary and permanent injunction requiring the city to stop enforcing its ban on marijuana sales within city limits, which would allow the Yatskos to operate in their second location. The litigation for their shop outside of the I-2 district is currently at the Montana Supreme Court.

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Emily Tschetter
Emily Tschetter

Emily Tschetter is a junior studying journalism and political science at the University of Montana. She was born and raised in Billings and grew up surrounded with music between going to concerts and playing cello. She worked at the Montana Kaimin, University of Montana's independent student newspaper, as a news reporter last school year and will start as the news editor in the fall. In her free time Emily loves building up her vinyl collection, being overly critical of movies, going to cheap diners with friends and enjoying music whenever she can.