Does Cortez have too many retail marijuana outlets? Should it allow any more in the future? Is the presence of legalized marijuana causing an increase in crime and homelessness?
The Cortez City Council pondered those questions during a spirited discussion at its workshop on Sept. 25, but came to no conclusions.
The discussion had apparently been prompted by comments the council heard during a public hearing on Sept. 11.
That hearing concerned a proposal by NuVue Pharma, LLC, of Pueblo, Colo. for a retail marijuana outlet in the 500 block of Patton Street on the eastern outskirts of the city. But some of the people who spoke voiced concerns not so much about that particular proposal, but about retail marijuana stores in general and the ways they believe they are changing the community.
A dozen citizens – not all of them city residents – spoke at the hearing against the prospect of yet another pot shop in town in addition to the five that already exist.
Other than the applicants themselves, just one person – the realtor who was involved in the transaction – spoke in favor of the new license.
‘Prom dress on a prostitute’
Bruce Burkett, a pastor with Lighthouse Baptist Church in Cortez, said he believed the majority of city residents don’t want to see yet another marijuana dispensary open up.
“From the start, it’s been obvious that [marijuana] is a gateway drug,” Burkett said. He said levels of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, have been rising in commercially grown strains of the plant, while levels of CBD, which has medicinal benefits, have been reduced to 0.1 percent.
Burkett linked marijuana to increases in crime, drugged driving, driving fatalities, homelessness and teen drug use across Colorado.
He said the Bible speaks against the use of mind-altering pharmaceuticals, although the term used is “sorcery.”
Kathleen Tarr, who said she had moved to Cortez from Los Angeles “to get away from what’s coming here,” asked whether the city had any limits on either pot shops or liquor stores. When told it does not, she said she was shocked.
Duane Cook of Mancos told the council there are 22 dispensaries already within a 50-mile radius around Cortez and asked the board to “use their moral compass” and deny the NuVue license.
A Summit Ridge man said high-school students are buying pot from dispensaries and then distributing it to other kids in the Walmart parking lot.
Charlotte Jones, a native of Cortez, likened marijuana to unsavory activities such as prostitution and robbery. “You can class up anything,” she said. “You can put a prom dress on a prostitute on the corner. . . or a suit on a bank robber. . .” but the underlying truth is the same, she said. “There’s no way to class up marijuana and drug abuse and alcoholism.”
Following the public hearing, Councilor Jill Carlson noted that the council by law cannot deny a license based on religious grounds, or because of societal problems allegedly caused by marijuana, or based on speculation that the operation might cause traffic, noise, or vandalism problems. Instead, she noted, the council is allowed to consider the “reasonable requirements of the neighborhood,” the desires of adult inhabitants, or the character of the applicants.
In addition to the citizens who spoke at the hearing, the city had received a half-dozen letters opposing the dispensary, several of them from neighbors of the proposed shop, who said although the land was zoned for commercial uses, they didn’t want to live next to such a business.
Mayor Karen Sheek said she did have concerns about the neighborhood because all the city’s other marijuana dispensaries are in areas that are more purely commercial in nature. This outlet, she said, would be located in an area near many private residences.
The council, with little other discussion, then voted 7 to 0 to deny the license for NuVue.
But the larger issue of marijuana’s place in the city as well as Montezuma County remains a subject of considerable debate.
Sheriff Steve Nowlin has recently been disseminating a video titled “Chronic State: How Marijuana Normalization Impacts Communities” and urging citizens to view it.
The hour-long video by DrugFree Idaho paints a dark picture of legalized cannabis, featuring interviews with people in Denver and Pueblo who link pot to increases in transients, homelessness, crime, and the use of more serious drugs such as heroin.
It also talks about the negative environmental impacts of growing cannabis, from the problem of illegal marijuana grows on national forests to the host of pesticides needed to raise the crop, legally or illegally – fungicides, molluscicides, rodenticides, and more.
The video can be seen at https://vimeo.com/280127474
‘Slow it down’
During the Sept. 25 workshop, City Attorney Mike Green said he had sent the council a memo containing a draft ordinance that would impose a one-year moratorium on new retail marijuana licenses.
There are currently five marijuana outlets in Cortez. The city doesn’t have a cap on the number of outlets, but cannabis retail stores must be 1,500 walking feet from each other and from campuses, child-care centers and schools. City officials say that requirement essentially limits the number to a half-dozen or so, but Green said there are as many as six other locations within city limits where new retail outlets might still be feasible.
Asked why Cortez seems to be such a focus of interest for the cannabis industry, Green speculated that it’s because of the city’s location near the junction of four states and two Indian reservations. “We’re a border town,” he said, adding that many license plates at the retail outlets are from out of town.
Councilor Carlson voiced opposition to passing a moratorium without more facts to go on. She said there had been “a lot of unsubstantiated claims” made at the public hearing on Sept. 11.
“If I knew there were pot gangs in the Walmart parking lot handing out weed to students it would be one thing,” she said. “If that is the determining reason behind this, I’m not comfortable limiting a business owner’s right to seek a license. . . . Why are we picking who merits a license and who doesn’t?”
But Councilors Sue Betts and Gary Noyes said a moratorium was a good idea. “Slow it down so we can catch up and see what’s happening,” Noyes recommended.
Ty Keel appeared conflicted. “We have to take into consideration the greater good,” he said.” We can’t always base our opinions on the free-market economy.”
Keel said he is very cautious about legislating morality but that it’s necessary to take into account “what’s going on in the greater city area.” He said it would be difficult for him to base decisions purely on data.
The councilors asked Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane, who regularly attends council workshops and meetings, about his concerns about legal pot.
Lane said commercial cannabis outlets aren’t a major factor in underage marijuana use. “High-school kids are not going to go buy that high-priced marijuana from a store when they can get it for a third of the price elsewhere,” he said.
Lane said his department has tried sting operations to see if the commercial outlets are selling to underage buyers, but didn’t find that any were.
However, Lane said enforcement of regulations is an ongoing concern for the police department. The city receives little help from the state, he said, in checking that retail outlets and growers are following all the rules.
“ Most checking here is done by the police,” he said. “We didn’t anticipate the lack of help from the state. I have a half-time person who should be working full-time. If we ever get to the point where we have nine or 12 shops, I’m going to have to ask you for additional personnel to take care of these issues. I want marijuana shops operating the way they should operate.”
Mayor Sheek asked whether licensing and fees are supposed to cover the costs of enforcement.
“That’s up to you folks,” Lane said. “It’s not my responsibility to tell you what to do.”
Carlson asked if crime had increased. Lane said the number of calls has gone up but that can’t be definitively linked to marijuana.
The councilors noted that the Town of Dolores is considering legalizing commercial cannabis and wondered whether that would lead to the closure of some of Cortez’s pot shops.
Orly Lucero asked what would happen if an existing marijuana outlet closed after the moratorium was passed. Green said the moratorium would mean no new shops could open, period, unless the former owner was able to transfer his license to a new buyer.
Carlson insisted she would need actual facts to justify a moratorium. “Someone just saying, ‘My church doesn’t agree with it’ or, ‘I saw someone in the park’ – that’s not the stores’ responsibility, that’s a citizens’ responsibility.”
Carlson said if the council should suddenly issue a moratorium it would appear to be responding to comments from the small subset of the population that spoke at the Sept. 11 public hearing.
“Issuing a blanket moratorium, especially after such a heated meeting, looks like a knee-jerk reaction,” she said.
“Nothing has happened to lead to us issuing a moratorium at this point and the only way I can be comfortable is if we have statistics. The only thing that happened was we voted down a license.”
Legalized marijuana is here to stay, she said. “Like it or not, this is part of Colorado now.”
Lucero asked whether the council might consider earmarking some of the city’s marijuana sales-tax revenues for law enforcement, and Sheek said that could be decided at budget time.
The board then agreed to table the issue to think about it further before making any decision on a possible moratorium.