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Despite Legalization, Colorado Remains a Battleground for Weed

Is this prohibition’s pushback? Legalization’s growing pains?

by Randy Robinson

by Randy Robinson

While the rest of the world sees Colorado as the beacon of legal weed, the battle for access still rages on.

The Denver area has, for the most part, embraced its recreational cannabis industry. Today, voters in Denver may pass a social-use initiative, which would allow adults to smoke weed at Denver’s bars, nightclubs, and other private venues, regulating marijuana like alcohol.

Meanwhile, in southern Colorado, things aren’t so jovial.

Pueblo

Pueblo is Colorado’s third largest city. Before 2014, Pueblo was a struggling industrial town. Today, its economy is booming because of weed. But two initiatives on the ballot this November could stamp out the town’s economic revival for good.

Propositions 200 and 300, if approved, would ban all licensed recreational marijuana businesses. Prop 300 only bans rec licensing in the city of Pueblo. However, most Pueblo-area retailers and grow operations aren’t in the city. They’re in the periphery of Pueblo County.

Prop 200, the Big Bad, would ban all recreational businesses throughout Pueblo County.

Prop 200’s anti-market measures look vicious—because they are. The law wouldn’t just ban weed retail shops. It would also ban any recreational testing facilities, grows, edibles manufacturers, and other marijuana-infused product (MIP) companies.

In other words, Prop 200 would put a lot of people out of business. Overnight, it would eliminate 1,300 jobs. For business owners, it would destroy hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of investment, with no compensation for the entrepreneurs who devoted countless hours to kickstart a new, flourishing industry. Pueblo County, which just rose above a decades-long depression, would sink right back into a serious economic slump.

Why get rid of a good thing? Prop 200’s supporters claim legal pot led to an explosion of gang violence in Pueblo.

Image result for mesa organics pueblo
The Mesa Organics dispensary, in Pueblo, Colo., is fighting Prop 200 to stay in business.

Retired Air Force lieutenant colonel Jim Parco, who is now a professor of economics and a cofounder of the Mesa Organics dispensary, has been leading Pueblo’s efforts against Prop 200, and he says there’s no substance to Prop 200’s claims.

“Anytime you’re arguing for a new policy, both sides come up with all the goods and all the bads, and everything is hypothetical. But we’re at a point now where our side has facts. We have data,” says Parco. “They don’t have any data. They don’t have any facts."

The facts on Parco and Mesa Organics’ side, pulled from government data, show Pueblo’s pot industry generates $3 million in annual tax revenues. That tax has gone into infrastructure, arts programs, and college scholarships. And nearly 40 percent of Pueblo’s construction contracts involve cannabis, somewhere to the tune of $25 million.

Pueblo’s crime rates are higher than the national average, but Parco points to the county’s heroin epidemic as the main culprit. Homicides fell in September after federal agents teamed up with local police to nab suspected gang-affiliated triggermen.

Crime is not the only prohibitionist bait luring folks to the rec ban. Prop 200’s supporters like to bring up Pueblo’s swelling homeless population, too.

“Pueblo County does provide amenities for a lot of homeless people,” notes Richard Kwesell, one of the owners of the Strawberry Fields dispensary. “But none of those folks are shopping for more expensive product in recreational stores. I run two stores, and I certainly never see them coming in either store.”

The other Strawberry Fields shop can be found in Colorado Springs, just 40 miles north of Pueblo.

Colorado Springs

Colorado Springs is Colorado’s second largest metropolitan area. Unlike Pueblo and Denver, Colorado Springs leans very much to the conservative side of the political spectrum. It’s not only home to the uber-right-wing Christian groups Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, it also hosts four military bases: Ft. Carson, Peterson AFB, Schriever AFB, and—most famous—NORAD.

Over the last two years, the city of Colorado Springs has done everything in its power to curtail legalization’s successes—all while (supposedly) remaining within the confines of state law. Amendment 64 isn’t just any ol’ law; it’s a constitutional amendment. Under A64, every adult citizen in Colorado has a right to grow six cannabis plants. Every adult citizen has a right to possess small amounts of cannabis for personal use.

A64 didn’t come without caveats, though. It contains an “opt-out” clause allowing cities and counties to ban recreational cannabis businesses. Colorado Springs was one of the first cities in Colorado to enact a rec ban, even though most voters in El Paso County approved A64.

Colorado Springs’ city council didn’t stop at the rec ban. In late 2015, it enacted a moratorium on cannabis clubs. Cannabis clubs are like bars, but instead of serving alcohol, they provide a space for people to meet and share weed (or dabs, edibles, etc.). The city charged cannabis clubs with bringing crime, yet officials couldn’t produce evidence that pot clubs could be blamed for anything other than increased tax revenues.

Determined to march on, the city council followed up with an eight-year plan to phase out the clubs. The council presented the plan as a courtesy, so business owners could recoup investments. Then, just six months later, the city issued cease-and-desist orders to nine of the town’s clubs, effectively shutting down these businesses seven years before the scheduled phase-out.


An elaborate dab setup like this can cost “over $800,” says Ambur Rose Racek, owner of the endangered cannabis lounge Studio A64, in Colorado Springs, Colo. “Most people can’t afford that on their own, but they can always use the rigs here.”

Ambur Rose Racek owns Studio A64, one of Colorado Springs’ clubs appealing the cease-and-desist. She says the city needs these clubs because tourists have no other place to legally consume cannabis. Colorado Springs doesn’t allow cannabis use in public. Most hotels don’t allow cannabis, either. She adds that local newbies also rely on cannabis clubs. Here, they can learn the nuances of safe, responsible cannabis use, which can be incredibly complex to navigate alone.

“Dispensaries have a high volume [of customers]. They don’t have time to sit down and educate every person. That’s not their goal,” Racek says. “Their main goal is selling weed. We’re different. That’s not our main objective here.”

Racek believes the current city council won’t budge on cannabis. She says the city’s soft prohibition will only end with a new, educated council. Their seats are up for grabs in April 2017.

Colorado Springs city council passed a few other restrictions on cannabis over the last year. The ordinances include:

  1. ·0 A moratorium on dispensary expansions, new licenses, and renovations. Cannabis businesses seeking license renewals are currently in a state of limbo.

  2. ·1 A cap on home-grow plant counts to just 12 plants. This cap overrides patient plant counts assigned by doctors under Amendment 20, Colorado’s medical marijuana law.

  3. ·2 A ban on all cannabis oil extractions in private residences. This is the same life-saving oil that kids with seizure disorders need to live normal lives.

Although the city council claims these restrictions tackle problems caused by recreational pot, the people most affected by these ordinances aren’t stereotypical stoners. They’re medical marijuana patients. Many of them can’t work because they’re disabled. Others are just kids. Others are dying.

That home-extraction oil ban may seem trivial given all the pot that’s available in Colorado, but cannabis oil isn’t sold at most dispensaries. Hell, most dispensaries won’t even make the stuff because it’s “cost prohibitive,” and those that do charge a heavy fee. Unfortunately, some patients need entire bottles of oil just to function on a day-to-day basis.

The oil ban and plant-count caps made Colorado Springs a lot less appealing to the cannabis refugees who settled there. As a result, many caregivers and patients have left Colorado Springs for more cannabis-friendly towns.

Ironically, one of those towns is Pueblo.


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Randy Robinson

Based in Denver, Randy studied cannabinoid science while getting his degree in molecular biology. He writes about science, pot, politics, and pop culture. Find him on Twitter @Randy_Robinson_ or Facebook @RealRandyRobinson



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