City extends marijuana moratorium to 2015

Public safety officials weigh in on retail pot

The City of Cortez has extended its moratorium on all new marijuana licenses through the end of the year, but council members softened their stance on sending commercial marijuana sales to voters.

In a 6-1 decision on Tuesday, June 10, city leaders adopted Ordinance No. 1190, which prohibits gangapreneurs from setting up retail marijuana shops in Cortez until 2015. Council member Ty Keel was the lone opponent.

“A yearlong moratorium is quite a long time,” he said. “I think it’s time to move on this. That’s what’s best for the city. That’s what’s best for the public.”

Beofre the vote, Police Chief Roy Lane and Fire Chief Jeff Vandevoorde told council members during a near two-hour workshop they would support the council if they decided to legalize commercial marijuana sales. Lane said his stance defies all logic, training and experience.

“If the decision of the council is to allow retail marijuana, then I would rather it be regulated to make our job easier,” Lane said.

Lane ventured that regulating commercial operations on Main Street would not increase the amount of marijuana on back streets.

“Those who want it are still going to buy it,” he said, as council members passed a plate of brownies. “Those who want it are still going to possess it. Those who want to grow it are still going to grow it.”

In response to council concerns of increased use among teens, Lane said the rise in marijuana use among those under age 21 was negligible after the legalization of medical marijuana in 2000. Lane added that it was too early to speculate on a correlation between teen marijuana use and academic performance.

“I don’t think any of us are going to know in the first five years how it would affect children,” said Lane.

“There’s marijuana available now,” he said, “but by far, alcohol is a bigger problem.”

The city approves three-dozen liquor licenses annually. The city currently has four licensed medical marijuana businesses, and because of zoning constraints, only about a half-dozen retail marijuana shops could be approved.

Fire Chief Jeff Vandevoorde also told council members that he discussed the issue with his peers in Telluride, which has four commercial retail outlets. Vandevoorde indicated officials there neither reported a significant spike in the number of emergency calls nor the number of complaints received since retail sales started on Jan. 1.

“It’s mainly vacationers trying (marijuana) that aren’t accustomed to the altitude,” said Vandevoorde.

After the workshop, council members agreed Tuesday not to send the retail issue to voters as suggested last month by a 4-3 vote. Council member Shawna McLaughlin, part of the majority who favored an election for an up or down vote on retail marijuana businesses, was the first to announce on Tuesday that she’d changed her mind. The ballot measure was forecast cost to $10,000.

“I think this needs to be a council decision,” said McLaughlin.

“If you send it out to the voters, then it’s a done deal,” said Mayor Karen Sheek, part of the minority that initially opposed an election.

Public weighs in

A public hearing followed the workshop as the city considered extending its current 10-month moratorium on new marijuana licenses to the end of 2014. Before extending the moratorium, city leaders received public comments from six residents, including two medical marijuana purveyors, who said they wanted the city to allow retail marijuana businesses. No public comments in opposition were received.

Nathan Fete, a gangapreneur with Beacon Wellness, told council members that he opposed a moratorium. He then invited any council member to visit either of his company’s medical marijuana shops in Cortez or Mancos to gain a better understanding of the industry and available products.

“I want you to be able to make an educated decision,” he said.

“I think the town is missing out on a great opportunity to get extra taxes,” a private citizen told council members. “Lord knows the schools need it, and I think it could help.”

Medical marijuana business owner Garrett Smith of Herbal Alternative in Cortez reminded council that long-term marijuana prohibition would never work.

“Durango is going to pass (retail marijuana),” said Smith. “Telluride has already done it, and Mancos is well on its way. If you isolate yourselves, you’re only going to have people who would have spent revenues here in this town go to another town and spend it there.”

The city of Cortez receives about $75,000 annually from medical marijuana taxes and fees. Proponents of retail marijuana predict that city revenues could double if commercial sales were legalized.

City Attorney Mike Green said it was possible that staff could prepare and the city adopt an ordinance regulating commercial marijuana as early as August and that the city council could vote to repeal the moratorium at any time.

“It’s our intent to have an ordinance in place long before Dec. 31,” said City Manager Shane Hale. “This is going to the top of the pile.”

Across the state, 90 towns have prohibited commercial marijuana; 40 have adopted ordinances to regulate the industry, and 21 have moratoriums in place.

Under Colorado law, residents over the age of 21 can possess, use, display, gift or transport up to one ounce of marijuana as well as cultivate up to six marijuana plants.

tbaker@cortezjournal.com