Commissioners lean toward prohibition

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It was only the first reading of an ordinance that prohibits anything to do with recreational marijuana in Teller County but the commissioners appear to be leaning toward approving the prohibition in the future.

“We're in a position where the federal government has a law that says `this substance is controlled, aka, illegal,'” said commission chair Dave Paul at the meeting March 14. “The Controlled Substances Act needs to be repealed or amended on a states' rights' basis.”

County Planner Jan Fetrow and her staff recommended approval of the ordinance prohibiting the operation of marijuana cultivation facilities, marijuana-product manufacturing facilities, marijuana testing facilities and retail marijuana stores in unincorporated Teller County.

The document recognized that President Barack Obama recently stated that marijuana issues would not be a federal priority. “Nonetheless, as a complex and novel issue, this topic will remain at the forefront,” states the ordinance, in part.

The complexity stems from Colorado voters' approval of legalizing recreational marijuana, which is in direct contrast to federal-government laws. In Teller County, 51.5 percent approved the measure in Nov. 2012.

The county's proposed ordinance deals with recreational marijuana and leaves in place regulations regarding medical marijuana in Colorado. “We have four medical-marijuana establishments in the county and they won't be affected at all,” Fetrow said.

Because the state is mandated to adopt regulations and establish an excise tax by July1, commissioners Marc Dettenrieder, Paul and Norm Steen are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. “There is the opportunity to rescind the ordinance,” Fetrow said.

Several members of the audience argued against the prohibition. “Amendment 64 states that the first $40 million of tax revenue will go to improve our schools,” said Woodland Park attorney Michael Slivka. “The Department of Revenue is moving rapidly to set up the required infrastructure.”

Slivka then threw a verbal dart. “We should not allow ignorance and fear to continue to be exploited by those with a political or financial stake in continued prohibition,” he said.

Charles Houghton, an attorney in Colorado Springs, urged the commissioners to ease the transition for owners of medical-marijuana establishments who want to sell recreational marijuana. “I hope you will recognize that these people have spent a lot of money in your county, put people to work,” Houghton said, who represents several medical-marijuana centers in Colorado. “The businesses have proven to be benign and don't drain county resources.”

In fact, one of the recommendations of the state's task force, Houghton said, is that only people with existing medical-marijuana licenses would be eligible to apply for a recreational-use license, at least for the first year. “I think what we're asking for is relatively easy to grant because it's probably going to be forced on you, anyway,” he added.

Joel Stanley, who owns medical-marijuana facilities in Colorado Springs and is licensed to grow plants in Teller County, highlighted the tax benefits of recreational marijuana. “Those who choose not to grow their own will drive to another jurisdiction, pay their tax dollars there and bring the same amount of marijuana back here,” Stanley said.

If the commissioners approve the prohibition of recreational marijuana, they have turned away the opportunity for revenue, said Bob Armstrong.

The issue is uncertain, commission chair Paul said. “There's a real conundrum and there's nothing I've heard this morning that I would disagree with,” he said. “The real problem is the federal government.”

In arguing the position of the commissioners, Paul cited a letter from the Colorado representative of the Department of Justice. “The letter states specifically that not only are the feds still enforcing the law, but any elected official who approves illegal operations will be held personally responsible,” Paul said. “When you get to something where you have the full force of the federal government threatening you and holding you personally responsible for the acts of other people, just because you've approved an ordinance, that's a very strong statement.”

Yet the county has set aside 30 days for the public to submit comments for or against the ordinance. “When the ordinance comes back for the second reading, we'll track all of the requests for changes, make changes and the board will decide at that point what the final format will look like,” said county administrator Sheryl Decker.

Paul emphasized the level of uncertainty attached to the proposed ordinance. “I don't know what we're going to do,” he said. “That's why this is on paper. We not chiseling it in a piece of granite but, in order to protect ourselves, the state has to make its regulations first.”