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Grappling With the Green Weed

"Colorado men are we
From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the plateaus,
From the mine and from the gully, from the hunting trail we come,
Pioneers! O Pioneers!"
-- from "Pioneers! O Pioneers!"
 by Walt Whitman

Pioneers!

Plants grown in a Denver area grow house tended by license medicinal marijuana caregivers. Photo by Colleen Whitfield, Flickr creative commons license.
Plants grown in a Denver area grow house tended by license medicinal marijuana caregivers.
Photo by Colleen Whitfield, Flickr creative commons license.

Those who call Colorado home have always had an independent, pioneer streak. It was true in 1880 and it is true today. So it should be no surprise that on November 6, 2012 Colorado voters approved Amendment 64 which legalized recreational marijuana.

While it was not an overwhelming majority, the measure passed by a 10.64% margin with 55.32% in favor and 44.68% opposed.

Colorado is no stranger to the green weed. In November of 2000 Coloradoans approved the use and cultivation of a limited amount of marijuana for medical marijuana patients and their caregivers. Today, Glenwood Springs, with a population of just under 10,000, is home to five medical marijuana dispensaries.

New Territory

The State of Colorado and its counties, cities, and towns have struggled with the practical details of how to deal with recreational cannabis, particularly since under federal law the possession and use of marijuana is still illegal. Local government jurisdictions have authority to determine whether they will allow retail marijuana, what types of establishments to allow, and (within state parameters) how they are licensed and regulated.

The expectation is that governments that do allow retail marijuana will develop “strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems.”

The expectation is that governments that do allow retail marijuana will develop “strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems.” 1 This was no small task. To buy some additional time, the City of Glenwood Springs enacted a moratorium on recreational retail facilities through December 31, 2013. City Council requested the advice of the Planning Commission to assist with some of the issues.

Four types of retail licenses were identified in the state enabling legislation; retail sales, cultivation, manufacturing, infusion, and testing. Council asked the Planning Commission to weigh in on which of these licenses should be allowed within city limits and in what zone districts. The Commission was also asked to recommend potential minimum distances for marijuana retail establishments to be located, both from schools but also from other retail. This was not a clear-cut, easy task.

Green Medicine Wellness, one of Glenwood Springs' licensed medical marijuana dispensaries. Photo courtesy of Green Medicine Wellness.
Green Medicine Wellness, one of Glenwood Springs' licensed medical marijuana dispensaries. Photo courtesy of Green Medicine Wellness.

At the time of the Planning Commission discussion, regulations within the city of Glenwood Springs prohibited a medical marijuana facility within 500 feet of any public or private school facility where classes were held for children in kindergarten through grade 12.

However, in spite of our regulations, one medical dispensary received a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice requiring a 1,000 foot minimum distance from a school. The message was clear; the dispensary had to move or close.

Because of this, the Commission grappled with the minimum distance issue. Some commissioners advocated for no minimum distance between a school and retail facility, similar to what is currently allowed for liquor stores in our municipality. Other commission members maintained that the 1,000 foot minimum was reasonable.

Since Colorado’s mountain towns are highly dependent on tourism, there has been discussion about whether to allow cannabis clubs. This debate is occurring because Amendment 64 provides that marijuana cannot be consumed in public.

Since Colorado’s mountain towns are highly dependent on tourism, there has been discussion about whether to allow cannabis clubs. This debate is occurring because Amendment 64 provides that marijuana cannot be consumed in public.

Since most hotels and lodging establishments no longer allow smoking of any kind, including in guest rooms, it would be difficult for a tourist visiting our area to partake. The solution, at least to some, is a private “membership” club where you can “Bring Your Own Cannabis” (BYOC) and imbibe. The concept of marijuana clubs has caused some discomfort, even among supporters of Amendment 64.

Planning Commission Recommendation; City Council Action

After much discussion, and while not all planning commissioners agreed, the recommendation to City Council was to allow retail marijuana sales, infused products, and manufacturing and/or testing facilities in the core commercial zone district. All the above uses, along with cultivation were also recommended to be allowed in one of our industrial zone districts. The commission suggested a minimum distance of 500 feet from schools, reduced the required distance between retail shops to 350 feet, and provided recommendations on storage, odor, hours of operation, and signage. We also urged City Council to consider allowing private clubs.

The Council adopted the recommended minimum distance of 500 feet from schools, kindergarten through grade 12. It reduced the distance between retail establishments from 350 to 325 feet after it was discovered that 350 feet would not have allowed one of Glenwood’s five medical marijuana facilities to convert to retail if desired. City Council opted to expand retail marijuana sales, infused products, and manufacturing and testing facilities to three of the four commercial zone districts in Glenwood, but decided not to consider allowing private clubs at this time. 2

What Next?

Glenwood Springs has yet to see its first retail establishment due to the moratorium that ended on December 31. But we anticipate seeing at least several of our five existing medical marijuana facilities convert to retail operations. Because of the moratorium, existing medical facilities will have the first opportunity to become retail establishments. One of our medical marijuana businesses has purchased a warehouse in the industrial zone district and plans to expand its grow operation as well as its medical distribution -- and add a retail component as well.

Licensing of new establishments will open in October 2014. According to our local newspaper, a local retail shop in the neighboring town of Carbondale -- the first marijuana retailer in the Roaring Fork Valley -- ran out of the coveted weed after only two weeks in business. They continued to sell edibles and infused products while waiting for their next shipment. 3

According to the non-partisan Tax Foundation the State of Colorado estimates $67 million in new taxes will be generated from retail marijuana sales.

No doubt these regulations and enforcement of those rules will continue to evolve and be refined.

There are those who think legalization of recreational marijuana could prove to be a huge boon to sagging sales tax revenue. According to the non-partisan Tax Foundation the State of Colorado estimates $67 million in new taxes will be generated from retail marijuana sales. 4

Several states are considering following Colorado and Washington State’s lead in legalizing small amounts of pot. What’s more, a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found 55 percent of the public in favor allowing regulated businesses to sell marijuana. It may not be long before some of you reading this are also involved with drafting zoning provisions to accommodate the sale of marijuana! 5

Mt. Elbert: Elevation 14,440 ft outside Leadville, Colorado. Highest mountain in the contiguous United States
Mt. Elbert: Elevation 14,440 ft outside Leadville, Colorado. Highest mountain in the contiguous United States.

However, until that happens, you can only legally get high – on marijuana – in Colorado and Washington. The choice is clear! Who can resist the allure of the spectacular Colorado mountains or the John Denver song, “Rocky Mountain High.” And you can get higher in Colorado than anywhere else in the contiguous United States - even without grass!

“It's Colorado Rocky Mountain high
I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky
Friends around the campfire and everybody's high
Rocky Mountain High . . . Colorado”

We'll see you in Colorado!

Notes:

  1. Statement of Basis and Purpose, Colorado Department of Revenue Permanent Rules Related to the Colorado Retail Marijuana Code (Sept. 9, 2013); use link to Current Marijuana Retail Rules on Colorado Dept. of Revenue web site. Interested in opening a retail marijuana store in Colorado? Here's what you need to do to comply with state law.
  2. See Glenwood Springs Municipal Code, Article 050.090, Retail Marijuana and Article 070.040 addressing zoning.
  3. Michael McLaughlin, “Doctor’s Garden gives the people what they want -- pot” (The Aspen Times, Jan. 31, 2014).
  4. Joseph Henchman, “Colorado Begins Legal Marijuana Sales, Collecting Marijuana Tax” (Tax Foundation blog, Jan. 1, 2014). Currently the sales tax rate for Glenwood Springs is 8.6 percent -- the state keeps 2.9 percent; Garfield County and the rural transportation authority each get one percent; and Glenwood Springs retains 3.7 percent. The state sales tax has been earmarked for new school construction.
  5. Rebecca Ballhaus, “WSJ/NBC Poll: Solid Support for Legal Marijuana” (The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 28, 2014).