The fate of what would be the first-ever marijuana festival in Montezuma County seemed to be up in the air even after the county commission on June 29 denied a permit for the event.
In discussions that day, the board, Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin, Planning Director LeeAnn Milligan, and county attorney John Baxter were in agreement that the event, planned for July 31-Aug.1 northeast of Dolores, should not take place and that its organizers had not applied in time to be considered for the high-impact and special-use permits they would need from the county.
Milligan said the application had not arrived in time for it to be considered at the monthly meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission on June 25, and unless P&Z were to hold a special meeting, there would be insufficient time for the application to be reviewed by P&Z and the county commissioners the event began July 31.
“The reason we denied the permit was that they had not submitted their application in time,” explained commission chair Keenan Ertel in a subsequent phone interview with the Free Press.
“We did not have time to advertise that, hold a public hearing, and do all the things that have to be done to legally grant that, so they were basically out of compliance with the timing.”
However, Ertel also expressed strong reservations about the nature of the Bong-a-Thon – which offers “competitive toking,” according to its website.
“From the sounds of this thing, it’s a pot-smoking contest designed to get people supremely inebriated with marijuana,” Ertel said. “This is all about competing to see who can consume the strongest, the most, or the longest.”
He said there was a strong possibility of participants requiring emergency medical attention, and voiced concerns about access to the site, which is via a one-lane dirt road “off a pretty sharp curve on 145.”
But Chris Jetter, an organizer of the event, said he had been in contact with the county planning department since May and had been working to mitigate all concerns. He said he had been blindsided by the denial at a meeting at which he hadn’t even been present.
“I contacted two traffic-control companies in Durango, got quotes from them, jumped through the hoops, provided all the information I was supposed to, and all of a sudden they have a meeting and claim there wasn’t time to process this.
“I’ve been in contact with Montezuma County since May 29, so I’ve been bounced around to CSP [Colorado State Patrol], bounced around to CDOT [Colorado Department of Transportation], talked to the sheriff, filled out all the paperwork, made sure the insurance quotes were handled and traffic control was handled.
“I called LeeAnn Monday morning to find out if they needed information because I hadn’t heard anything from them and she tells me, ‘Oh, there’s a meeting today, we’ve got to have everything today’.”
Jetter said he sent her by email the information she requested, but “I got a call from a reporter that afternoon informing me the permit was denied based on the fact they didn’t have enough time to process the application. I don’t understand. They had more than enough time to process the application.
“If they can’t process an application in 60 days I don’t know what the problem is.”
Held for the past five years in Park County, Colo., the invitation-only Bonga- Thon features music, camping, food, and vendors, as well as contests during which individual participants and teams vie to see who can smoke the most herb or continue smoking for the longest periods.
Based on past attendance, the event could draw more than a thousand recreational- marijuana users to fill the air around Stoner with billowing clouds of pot smoke.
According to the event’s website at www.bong-a-thon.com, this was to be the 32nd gathering.
Jetter said it began in 1974, underwent a 10-year hiatus starting in 1997, and was resurrected in 2010 in South Park.
At press time, the website still said the festival would be held on a 52-acre farm owned by Frank McDonald at Stoner, which is off Highway 145 between Dolores and Rico. The site advised participants to bring their own food and water, plus accommodations for camping for two days (such as RVs or tents). Firearms, fireworks, illegal drugs, dogs, and anyone under 21 are all prohibited.
Some competitive events described on the site include individual, open, and relay bong-a-thons, the latter of which involves seven-member teams whose members each smoke a gram of cannabis and pass on the bong. “First team to smoke 1/4oz wins!” the site states.
Jetter said the fest had never had problems in Park County. “I’ve done it five years in a row since 2010 and I haven’t had one issue down there.” However, recently Park County raised its permit fee and expanded the application to more than 100 pages, making it clear they didn’t want him any more, he said, so he looked for another site. McDonald offered him the use of his property and Jetter was pleased by what he found, so he began asking about necessary permits.
However, Nowlin told the Free Press he had talked with Park County’s sheriff and “he didn’t have any positive remarks about what had happened there and that’s apparently why they’re not there.”
Nowlin said the commissioners’ biggest concern was possible medical calls and the inability to be able to respond to them properly. Although there has never been a documented case of anyone dying from a cannabis overdose, the potent herb can spark panic attacks, irregular heartbeats, and, according to some physicians, a form of pot psychosis.
“This can go south in so many different ways that I’m really concerned about it,” Nowlin said.
Access to the site is just past the Dunton turnoff off the West Dolores Road, he said, off Road 38.5. “It’s a bad road. The only entrance and exit is on County Road 38.5 – the only way in and out.”
But Jetter said he would of course be prepared for medical emergencies.
“We’ve held this event five consecutive years. We always have first aid available – a trained EMT on site. This is a cannabis party, not a psychedelic party or a rave party or a bunch of kids doing Special K [a potent tranquilizer]. This is people smoking cannabis, which as far as I know is a legal substance in the state of Colorado.
“If this was a beer event or a wine event, nobody would really be concerned about it. If I was holding a Cortez- Dolores wine-tasting festival with 1200 people on this private property, I’m pretty sure I would have been greenflagged already.”
He added, “My whole feeling is the county isn’t very friendly to Frank Mc- Donald or Stoner, Colorado, at all.”
But Ertel and Nowlin said it was the competitive nature of the event that concerned them rather than the fact that it involves marijuana.
“If they were up there having a barbecue and horseshoe-pitching contest and it was all based around everybody coming and having a place to smoke a joint or two and camaraderie and food, I wouldn’t have near the problem with it,” Ertel said, “but this thing is a consumption contest and you’re going to have some people that are going to be mucho screwed up.”
Nowlin agreed. “It really is troubling. To me, that’s not recreational use, it’s abuse. You don’t have drinking contests. Come on!”
Still, county leaders, who voice strongly Libertarian and states’-rights views on most issues, do tend to turn pro-federal-government when there is any discussion of cannabis, pointing out that it remains illegal under federal law. Both current and previous commissioners have “just said no” to pleas to allow commercial marijuana dispensaries or grow operations in the county, whether for recreational or medical purposes – despite the fact that there are commercial operations in Cortez and Mancos.
Jetter said he is accustomed to facing unreasoning prejudice when it comes to cannabis. “It’s supposed to be regulated like alcohol, but the legislators aren’t doing it, the counties aren’t doing it.”
He said he opened a dispensary in Aurora in 2009 and a private club in Denver, the latter of which led to criminal charges against him by the city.
“I’ve been stiff-armed all the way to the bank by every agency along the way and there’s resistance everywhere. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing or how you’re doing it, if you’re involved with cannabis you get resistance.”
At press time, Jetter was uncertain how he might proceed.
“Ultimately this is a private invitational event,” he said. “Everybody is registered, we know who they are before they ever get to the gate. It’s like holding a large wedding, so I don’t necessarily need a permit to hold an event.” However, he said he did need a permit to provide amplified music.
“We’re not trying to disturb anybody. We want to make sure everything is kosher in the community and that’s why I contacted the sheriff, CDOT, CSP, and the county.
“I always do my due diligence, so it’s disappointing, especially when the county commission comes back with an excuse like they don’t have time to process an application.”
Jetter said he is considering moving the event elsewhere and is talking with his attorney.
Nowlin said in his view, the event is not private because people can obtain an invitation by going online.
The site advertised “guest” tickets for $80, and “golden” tickets for $420. Both were listed as donations rather than fees. Jetter said that was because the event is an invitational party and typically does not turn a profit.
“It costs about $70,000 to throw the party,” he said. “The thing for us is to make sure that anybody who comes to this event has the time of their life. If they don’t, we’ve failed.”
He said a documentary about the event has been completed and should be released next month.
Likewise, county officials seemed uncertain how they might handle the matter if the Bong-a-Thon were to continue without a county permit.
Short of a court injunction, Nowlin said he doesn’t believe he has the authority to cancel the event, despite his concerns about impacts to participants and county residents, especially those traveling along the winding and narrow Highway 145. He noted that cannabis use tends to slow reaction time and other motor skills related to driving .
A similar situation a decade ago pitted former county commissioners and Sheriff Gerald Wallace against Dan Bradshaw, the organizer of a motorcycle rally that had been proposed for Echo Basin Ranch near Mancos on Labor Day weekend. Even though the county refused to grant a high-impact permit for that event, citing safety and traffic concerns and lack of time to review the application, the rally had been highly advertised and promoted and thousands of bikers had already paid fees.
Bradshaw insisted the rally would go on as scheduled, maintaining a permit wasn’t needed for that venue. However, that commission sought an injunction in District Court to shut down the event and, after a hearing, it was granted.
Electronic signs announcing that the rally had been canceled were erected along Highway 160 near Echo Basin and deputies patrolled the entrance. Some would-be attendees who traveled great distances were still permitted to camp there overnight, but the concerts and other events were not held.
At the June 29 commission meeting, attorney Baxter said he did not believe an injunction would be much help to the county. He advised the sheriff to enforce existing state laws regarding traffic and disorderly conduct, and said he would see if there were ways to cite the organizers for violating the land-use code if they held the event without a county permit.
Milligan said she would check with the State Patrol to see if they were going to give permission for the event, but noted that it was sometimes difficult to reach anyone with that agency.
Baxter did not return a phone message from the Free Press.
“I have asked the commissioners to come up with a plan,” Nowlin said. “If they don’t tell me, it’s just business as usual and it’s going to be a problem. I don’t have enough officers, but I’ve got to protect our citizens and our visitors traveling through there and the residents around there, so there may not be any vacation or time off for my deputies.”
He said his biggest concerns are possible traffic problems, driving under the influence, underage use, and illegal distribution of cannabis.
“This isn’t good for anybody. I really don’t want to see this conflict,” Nowlin said. “I’m just keeping my fingers crossed and praying we can do the right thing. I would like to see it prevented before it gets started. I’ll plan for the worst and hope for the best.”