OPINION: Marijuana in Archuleta County
Michael Whiting | 6/10/13

On Tuesday June 18, 2013, the  Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners will deal with the sunset of our moratorium on issuing permits for medical marijuana (MMJ) businesses. We will be debating whether or not to continue the moratorium, or lift it to allow new applications, and under what circumstances and standards we allow new medical marijuana businesses to locate in the County. 

While this decision is about “medical marijuana” businesses only, and not about “Recreational/Retail” (RMJ) marijuana use or sale, it has implications for that emerging business sector in the not-so-distant future. Important deadlines for BoCC decisions on RMJ marijuana will start early this fall before Amendment 64 takes affect in January 2014. 

Marijuana, whether its “medical” or “recreational/retail” is a hot-button topic across Colorado and Archuleta County. Pagosa's mayor Ross Aragon, speaking unilaterally for Town Council and the Townspeople, said “we don’t want marijuana here...”, while the voters of Archuleta County and the Town said “yes” by a 55.5% majority to Amendment 64 that legalizes recreational marijuana. 

I thought a brief history of marijuana (legislation) in Colorado and Archuleta County would be useful going into the debate on Tuesday June 18. 

There are heartfelt concerns about minors getting their hands on marijuana more easily, and we need to ensure that medical and retail marijuana businesses do not adversely impact neighboring homes and businesses. Both “types” of marijuana are still illegal at the federal level. Marijuana also dredges up purely emotional generational disagreements (as the statements above illustrate), but it also creates unique economic opportunities for our struggling community. 

Cooler heads must prevail in this discussion. Facts, not fear, must lead our deliberations. All drugs, from “recreational” alcohol to Xanax, have risks and benefits that should be carefully weighed. This decision is no different. We can not afford to overlook either. Nor can we delay our discussion or decisions.

The fact remains that a clear majority of Archuleta County (and Colorado) voters decided to make marijuana legal, for medical (Amendment 20 in 2000) and personal use, and to buy and sell (Amendment 64 in 2012). That is fact. So let’s talk about how best to regulate and tax this legal substance and business sector, to protect the public and offset its real impacts, and maximize our benefit from its presence in the business community. 

Amendment 20 (Medical Marijuana - MMJ) was approved in Colorado by 54% of voters in November of 2000 and became legal on June 1, 2001.The act removed state-level criminal penalties on the use, possession and cultivation of marijuana by patients who possess written documentation from their physician affirming that he or she suffers from a debilitating condition and advising that they “might benefit from the medical use of marijuana.” The vote was closer (50.1%) here in Archuleta County back then, but the measure passed by 1/2% ... or 27 out of 4617 votes cast. 

Amendment 64 (Retail/Recreational Marijuana - RMJ) was passed in Colorado by nearly 55% in November, 2012. Amendment 64 allows people who are over 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, over 21s will also be allowed to cultivate a maximum of 6 plants in their homes. There is a provision regulating non-resident buyers, so called “marijuana tourists”. There is also a provision for a system of regulated marijuana retail stores at which marijuana could be sold which would be under a separate system from existing medical marijuana dispensaries. This makes Colorado, and Washington State, the first two U.S. states to legalize and tax cannabis for non-medical purposes.

Here in Archuleta County in 2012, Amendment 64 passed by a wider margin. Of the 6356 votes cast, it went 3534 (55.5%) for, to 2822 (44.3%) against the measure, or a margin of 712 votes or 11.3%. 

Other items for consideration:

  • Our County moratorium allowed people in pain access to critical relief by allowing a medical marijuana dispensary (a good thing), but at the same time created a monopoly, allowing only one business to exist in the County (not a good thing). 
  • Seventeen states have now legalized medical use of marijuana for the treatment of things like glaucoma, cancer, arthritis, for the effects of chemotherapy and chronic pain; ignoring federal laws that still consider marijuana more dangerous than cocaine and methamphetamine. 
  • Locally, what prosecutors call “jury nullification”, where juries say, "I know what the law is, but I'm not going to follow it." is becoming very common in marijuana cases. Citizens have made it very clear that criminal enforcement of marijuana is not something they want to spend any time or money on. That is essentially the position of U.S. Justice Department. Deputy Attorney General James Cole told U.S. Attorneys not to waste resources prosecuting cases that are in clear compliance with state marijuana laws.
  • In a holdover from a bygone era, the Federal Controlled Substances Act, still lists marijuana as a Schedule One narcotic, every bit as dangerous as heroin and with no medical benefit. A federal appeals court in Washington D.C. is currently hearing a case that could remove marijuana from the list of the most dangerous drugs, and into a category that would allow it to be prescribed by doctors.
  • It is estimated that there is over one million square feet of leased space in the Denver area dedicated to marijuana, employing electrical contractors, HVAC contractors, and many related  businesses, and boosting commercial real estate. The estimated direct annual tax revenues for Denver alone is in excess of $20 million. This illustrates the undeniable economic component of this issue.
  • On the humorous side, and also a glimpse into our blind-spot about marijuana, a Washington State farmer who had been feeding her pigs the cast-offs (stems and seeds ) of local marijuana growers, was surprised that her pigs had gained an average of 20 to 30 pounds extra, saying “They were eating more, as you can imagine”. 
  • Industrial Hemp, a distant cousin of consumable marijuana, with no active chemicals, but caught up on the “Reefer Madness” taboo on all cannabis types, is now legal to grow. It is a remarkable plant that can be made into everything from paper, rope, and clothing, to industrial machine oil and fuel, to cooking oil.

What implications could these last two items have for Archuleta County economics and agriculture?

There is not much evidence to support the notion that legalizing marijuana will make it easier for children to acquire, or more likely to use it, but let’s look at any information we can get on the subject. 

There is a lot to think about and talk about.

MIchael Whiting is editor of the Pagosa Daily Post, and one of three Archuleta County commissioners.

 
   

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