Cautious about cannabis, blind to booze?: Local officials struggle to navigate issues around mood-altering drugs

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When area residents first heard that a competitive pot-smoking event called a “Bong-a-Thon” had been planned in Montezuma County for July 31-Aug. 1, most had one of two reactions:

It sounds like fun. I’d like to go!

This has got to be stopped, no matter what it takes.

The event – proposed for a tract of private land near Stoner, northeast of Dolores – was ultimately stopped by the county commissioners, who voted 3-0 to deny the necessary permits. Furthermore, they went to court to obtain an injunction in case the organizers made good on their threat to hold the festival anyway (they didn’t).

The rejection, which relieved many locals, drew expressions of contempt and defiance on social-media sites from pot enthusiasts, who view critics of the drug as uninformed victims of debunked propaganda, possibly hypocrites who ignore alcohol’s staggering toll on society.

Locally, there were comments to the effect that the commissioners were blindly prejudiced against cannabis, which has been legal for recreational use in Colorado since January 2014.

But far from being outright opposed to the mood-altering plant, many local officials hold fairly nuanced views about its benefits and drawbacks. They struggle to reconcile the conflicting sentiments of their different constituents, who include young pleasure-seeking stoners, aging (and aching) ex-hippies who see pot as a friend, staunch conservatives who see it as an evil, and Libertarians concerned about government intrusion into private life.

The smoldering issue was re-ignited when organizers approached the county for permission to hold the 31st Annual Invitational Bong-a-Thon in a meadow in the Dolores River Valley off the winding, two-lane Highway 145.

While commissioners cited inadequate time to process the application as the legal reason for the denial, Chairman Keenan Ertel also expressed reservations about the Bong-a-Thon’s nature, as it featured contests in which individuals and teams would vie to smoke the most marijuana, or smoke it the quickest or longest.

Chris Jetter, organizer of the event and owner of a dispensary in the Denver area, stressed that attendance at the Bong-a-Thon was by pre-paid invitation only, and said the fest had been troublefree the past five years at its former Park County location. He said rejection locally was indicative of the prejudice and pushback he’d experienced in general regarding cannabis, and said a wine-tasting festival in the same location would have gotten a speedy green light.

But Commissioner Larry Don Suckla told the Free Press that was not so.

“That particular situation was about the land-use code and not having enough time to get the permit,” he said. “If it would have been a wine-tasting, it still wouldn’t have had enough time to get it done.”

In addition, Suckla said, there were legitimate concerns about bringing upwards of a thousand people to that particular site.

“I think it would have been very unsafe, especially the location in that river valley with those winding roads,” he said.

But cannabis supporters point out that the Montezuma County commissioners have also said no to grow operations and retail outlets, despite the fact that the municipalities of Cortez and Mancos do allow retail sales.

The commissioners voted 3-0 in June 2014 to extend an existing ban on pot farming and retail sales.

In August 2010, a previous set of commissioners voted to ban medical marijuana retail centers, cultivation operations, and infused-products manufacturing in the unincorporated county – despite hearing numerous public comments largely in favor of medical pot.

Commissioners have usually cited credible reasons for decisions against cannabis – Gerald Koppenhafer, for instance, said in 2010 that he did not think the county should be involved in licensing a purportedly medical product – but several have also voiced personal distaste for the drug.

When the board voted in 2014 to continue the ban, Ertel commented that in 2012, the majority of county residents voted against the statewide ballot initiative legalizing recreational marijuana.

But he added that he has a “social disagreement” and “personal discomfort” with the recreational use.

“I have no problem with that if a doctor thinks it’s [beneficial], but I do with recreational pot,” Ertel said.

Suckla likewise commented in 2014, “I’m sure people are happy when they’re smoking pot, [but] this country wasn’t made by people being happy all the time.”

His remark drew an angry response from Ed Sheets of Lewis, who had presented plans for a large-scale grow operation in the county. “You’re insinuating that people who smoke pot are lazy and worthless,” Sheets said. “You’d made up your minds before this [hearing] ever started.”

But Suckla told the Free Press he is glad the state legalized pot.

“I think it’s a good thing because it’s the first time I’ve seen where a state law – supposedly, so far – has superseded a federal law. I believe that’s a good thing because on all the other issues we face in Montezuma County, that argument is always brought back, that state law cannot supersede federal law. Well, by the passing of marijuana it just did.”

Of course, that has not been established in the courts; the Obama administration simply chose not to enforce the federal anti-pot laws in Colorado and Washington state. Nebraska and Oklahoma have filed suit against Colorado to try to force the federal government to crack down.

Suckla said he had voted to prohibit cannabis sales and grow operations in the county because he’d heard from commissioners around the state that, if the next president decides to resume enforcing federal drug laws, counties that had collected revenues from cannabis sales might have to pay them back.

“Everybody is sitting on the sidelines, those that have the moratoriums, to see how this progresses so that in the future they don’t get their county in trouble if the federal government was to take a different stance,” Suckla said.

He has other reasons for taking a skeptical view of pot. He’s been told expulsions in the local middle school and high school have jumped fivefold since recreational pot became legal, although he hadn’t verified this.

And, Suckla added, the county’s voters did reject the ballot initiative to legalize pot, “so I would rather take this stance and not get our county in trouble.”

Neighboring Dolores County has likewise said no to commercial growers and retailers. Commissioner Ernie Williams echoed Suckla’s point about representing the will of the voters.

“Dolores County as a whole voted it down and as an elected official that represents the county that’s what we do.”

Williams said he’d known pot-smokers who seemed unharmed by the drug. “In the past, in my oil-rig years, I knew a lot of people that smoked pot. They did just fine – they worked just fine.”

But he said the current situation, where pot is legal in Colorado but not in surrounding states, is causing enormous problems.

His brother, a district attorney in Wyoming, Williams said, says inconsistent drug laws have “ruined a lot of kids’ lives.”

“Kids come across the state line and buy pot. When they cross back over the state line and get caught, it’s a felony. All those kids that are law students there at Laramie, they lose their scholarships. They can no longer buy a gun, they can no longer have some service jobs in state and federal organizations.”

He sees a similar situation with interstate truck drivers. “I deal with CDL driver’s licenses. Pot is not legal federally, so we got people trying to smoke pot on a CDL driver’s license and it’s not legal. If you test positive for pot you lose your driver’s license.

“As elected officials, we’re trying to watch out for our citizens. I don’t want any of my young people in Dolores County to end up with a felony and lose their hunting rights and their guns and all of that just because they crossed the state line with pot that was legal in Colorado.”

Williams said the windfall pot was supposed to produce for schools has not materialized.

“You go to the schools, so what has it done? Some people have a little bit of recreation and the rest of us have to put up with the problems that it brings.

“I don’t look for our county to change any time soon. What other people think about smoking pot, I respect their views, but I just see what’s going on as a whole.”

If local officials do have a bias against cannabis, they aren’t alone. Congress has so far refused to look at changing laws regarding the substance, which is classified as a Schedule I narcotic without legitimate medical uses despite research showing it may be beneficial for glaucoma, seizure disorders and wasting diseases. And at the end of July, federal banking regulators rejected a Denver credit union’s application to the Federal Reserve for permission to serve Colorado’s marijuana industry, which currently has to do business in cash.

Art Goodtimes, a county commissioner in San Miguel County, is one of the few area officials who has a highly positive view of cannabis.

“I think I was the only public official in the state who came out ahead of Amendment 64 in favor of legalizing cannabis,” Goodtimes said. “It’s proven to be quite a valuable addition to our economy, and we haven’t seen a real rash of problems with it — only handfuls of people stopped while driving with cannabis.

“In Norwood, where I live, there’s a lot more money in town, more people around. There’s medicinal growing, but we haven’t had commercial because the town of Norwood doesn’t want it. We have a lot of opposition from people who have been told it’s a dangerous Schedule I drug with no redeeming value.”

Shane Hale, city manager for Cortez, said the city council’s decision to allow commercial cannabis outlets seemed a practical one and that sales have enriched the city’s coffers.

In 2014, the total sales-tax revenues the city received from dispensaries were just under $51,000, he said. In contrast, through just the first five months of 2015, after the city allowed commercial pot sale, the city garnered about $76,000. That includes sales-tax collections by the city and other revenues from the state, which collects an additional 10 percent off commercial pot and gives 15 percent of that sum back to the city.

“Obviously retail sales have really increased the amount of money we’ve received,” Hale said.

Cortez has issued licenses for five commercial cannabis outlets, one of which has yet to be built, Hale said. The number of venues selling liquor, he noted, is “substantially more.”

For city leaders, he said, the decision to allow commercial sales came down to being able to keep an eye on what was going on.

“It wasn’t really the city’s decision to legalize marijuana,” Hale said. “That was made by people as a whole in the state, so really our only real options were whether it could be sold with daylight on it. By daylight I mean a storefront – a commercial corridor that could be inspected by police and safe building conditions and everything else.”

That appeared preferable to the “caregiver model” otherwise allowed by law, where people can grow certain amounts of medical cannabis in their homes.

“We wouldn’t necessarily have a way to make sure it was done right, a building inspector making sure it was wired correctly. I think it came down to whether we wanted big residential grow operations that we didn’t necessarily even know about, or whether we wanted to put some daylight on them and put them on Main Street. Do we want this to be a product that is kind of licensed, where we can have trained people making sure everything is done correctly, or do we want it to be part of the underground?

“I think council took a lot of time trying to make sure they had the information to make the decision and I think they made the decision that was right for this community.”

Some five years ago, Hale said, some enforcement officers based in Grand Junction who spoke in Cortez said after Mesa County had voted against large grow operations,. “Now we know there are hundreds of these caregivers throughout Mesa County and there’s no government oversight of any of them.”

Garrett Smith, owner of the Herbal Alternative in Cortez, said he believes cannabis (a term he prefers to slang words such marijuana or pot) is a much safer drug than alcohol.

He grows his product, both medical and recreational strains, on site and is planning to expand the grow operation.

Smith believes there is a definite prejudice against the use of cannabis, but said this attitude extends to all mood-altering substances.

“There’s always going to be opposition – people who think cannabis is bad and it doesn’t belong in the recreational field [or even] the medical field,” he said, “and I think that’s the same with alcohol, with tobacco or any of those type of vices people like to enjoy.”

The encouragement of excessive consumption at bacchanalian events like the Bong-a-Thon, he conceded, can be used “to their advantage” by people opposing even moderate consumption.

However, Smith pointed out, traditional booze fests such as Durango’s annual Snowdown involve similar behavior with alcohol. As the owner of a restaurant in Durango for a decade, he often observed what amounted to drinking competitions during those revelries, but “I didn’t see anyone pulling permits over those.”

Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane said the main problem legalization has caused his department is regulation of the outlets. “It’s something we did not have to do prior to the legalization. This year I had to add a person to my staff just to be able to do that.”

He said no state monies or grants cover that cost. However, Hale said licensing fees for retail and medical establishments are designed to cover the cost of having a compliance officer, and the new position also involves overseeing liquor stores.

“Marijuana has been the focus – it’s the shiny new penny in Cortez and statewide,” Hale said. “We’re a lot more comfortable with alcohol, but just because we have a higher comfort level doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be ensuring that those proprietors are following state law and doing things correctly as well.”

Some cannabis advocates postulated that its legalization might actually mean fewer problems with DUIs and such, if young people chose to use the “mellower” drug instead of alcohol, but Lane said he doesn’t see cannabis as more benign.

“It affects [users] in different ways, but I don’t see one being any less problem for us than the other,” Lane said. “I think that’s a generational thing. The older population has a real issue with marijuana because their entire life they have – we have – been told what a problem it was.”

Lane said his other main concern about pot involves surrounding states where it remains illegal. Outsiders can come here and purchase a limited amount of pot, but if they hit each shop and buy the limit, they can get plenty. “I’m sure it’s causing problems for the surrounding states.”

The effects of Colorado’s experiment will not be fully known for some time, he said. “I think it will be five years before we know what kind of crime it’s going to cause.” Social effects and health effects from secondhand smoke will likewise take time to see, he said.

Hale agreed. “I think we’ll look back in a decade and see where the city’s decision [to allow sales] ended us, but it’s just too soon to really know that.”

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From August 2015.