Notes from Colorado’s cannabis frontier

Notes from edges of cannabis frontier

This is from the June 26 issue of the MTN e-zine distributed to subscribers.

Vail remains deeply ambivalent

VAIL, Colo. – In 2012, when Colorado voters were asked to legalize sale and use of cannabis for recreational consumption, 75 percent of voters in Vail said yes.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean Vail residents want those cannabis sales to occur in Vail. When RRC Associates recently polled residents, non-resident workers, and non-resident property owners, only 31 percent supported sales.

The survey revealed a sharp division in opinion based on age. Among those 34 and under, i.e. the Millenials, 68 percent supported a recreational marijuana retail business within Vail. This compares with just 14 percent among those 65 and older.

A majority of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers also opposed cannabis stores.

That said, year-round residents were twice as supportive of recreational cannabis sales as part-timers in Vail.

Vail, meanwhile, has delayed a decision about whether to allow cannabis sales for another year, providing more time to evaluate the experience of other jurisdictions.

That doesn’t mean people in Vail will have to go far to buy their THC, the psychoactive agent in cannabis. Five stories are currently selling medicinal marijuana in Eagle-Vail and the Edwards communities, just a few miles west in unincorporated Eagle County. Up to five stores for recreational cannabis may be possible in Eagle-Vail.

Eagle County representatives say there have been few problems with medical shops. “The primary issue with such shops has been odor mitigation,” says Scot Hunn, a community planner. Those odors have been associated with grow operations, which is why the county commissioners have decided to allow cultivation in three of the county’s most rural zoning districts. Even then, a permit is required.

What people are saying in Vail

From 2014 community survey

✓ It is already dangerous enough on the mountain with people being sober, and too many people make bad decisions.

✓  It’s hard enough raising kids in a party town without adding drugs to the mix.

✓ Allowing & embracing marijuana and its use is highly detrimental to our image and our long-term safety. Vail is an established “safe” haven in the world and our guests, both domestic and international, flock to Vail for this reason.

✓ Residents and guests have been smoking pot in town, on the mountain, in the bars, for as long as the town has existed. Allowing stores or clubs will do little to change the character of Vail and would help the tax revenue for the community.

✓  I don’t smoke but think that we should take advantage of the tax revenue available. More people smoke than will admit they do.

✓ My husband and I both work at the hospital, neither one of us has ever taken care of a patient who has smoked too much marijuana. We do, however, have an alcohol problem in this community.

✓ Although I am all for marijuana being legal, the main tourist areas (the Village & Lionshead) need to remain fairly family friendly. Having it available in West Vail gives tourists the opportunity to partake in marijuana tourism but keeps it out of the “spotlight” of our main tourism areas.

✓ Either type of marijuana business should be in the pedestrian parts of the Village or Lionshead to encourage the use of public transportation.

Governor and the dangers

Telluride Medical Bud Co.But Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper remains leery of cannabis. He was in Aspen recently to speak at a state gathering of county sheriffs. The Aspen Daily News says he acknowledged that the war on drugs has been a failure, ruining lives by sending people to prison for small-scale sales. However, he also thinks that cannabis is a danger to young, impressionable minds.

There’s some research that finds that youngsters who smoke marijuana with high levels of THC will have worsened mental conditions, occurring more rapidly and more frequently. Hickenlooper also noted that the number of kids saying they will smoke marijuana for the first time within the next 12 months has nearly doubled.

“That should scare the daylights out of all of us because these kids think it’s harmless, and we know for a fact that the science is different,” Hickenlooper said.

Following the money trail

The money trail involving cannabis sales continues to perplex retailers and financial institutions in Colorado. Because cannabis sales remain a federal crime, banks and other financial institutions operating within the U.S. financial system don’t want to touch money coming from cannabis stores. In other words, you can’t take checks or credit cards. Everything has to be in cash. And, of course, that’s a lot of cash.

How do you pay taxes, for example? The Denver Post recently told of a new service, in which a courier service ferries the bucketloads of cash to a tax collector.

The Colorado Legislature last winter approved a bill, signed into law by Hickenlooper, that authorized cannabis credit co-ops. The Steamboat Today describes them as essentially credit unions for marijuana businesses.

A local retailer dismissed the value of the legislation. Kevin Fisher, co-owner of Rocky Mountain Remedies, tells the newspaper that without direct deposit, electronic bill paying, and electronic submission of taxes, the co-ops provide little.

“I don’t believe it’s going to change anything,” said Tim Borden, chairman of the board of Yampa Valley Bank. “About the only way this problem is going to get fixed is through federal legislation.”

Ski town taxes drag in April

Tax revenues from cannabis sales surged statewide during April, but dragged in at least two towns in Summit County. After $2.9 million in sales in January through March, shops in Breckenridge reported just $497,000 in April sales, town officials tell the Summit Daily News.

In nearby Silverthorne, sales were similarly light during April, as ski season ended. “The numbers are telling me our marijuana revenue is more tied to tourism than it is serving the local consumer,” said Donna Braun, finance director for the town.

Aspen leaves cash cow alone for now

In theory, legalizing cannabis in Colorado was going to end the back-alley peddling while producing more revenue for schools and other civic betterments. But state and local jurisdictions are walking a tight line. Tack on too many taxes and the only people frequenting the recreational marijuana stores will be tourists.

At least in part, that’s why the Aspen City Council has postponed a decision on levying an additional sales tax, reports the Aspen Daily News. Mayor Steve Skadron said he didn’t think an additional tax would stop tourists from buying retail marijuana, but it might push local purchasers back into the black market.

Marijuana sales are currently a cash cow. First there are the basic state, county, and town sales taxes, which in Aspen edge over 9 percent. The state then imposes another 10 percent sales tax on retail marijuana sales. Plus, there’s a 15 percent excise tax included in the pre-sales tax price.

Aspen was considering a 1 percent sales tax. Aspen has two dispensaries of recreational marijuana, and based on sales in Breckenridge, Telluride and Idaho Springs, city officials think a 2.1 percent sales tax on top of existing sales taxes would generate $250,000 to $550,000 in revenues annually.

The Aspen Times reported that a memorandum to the city council lists four potential beneficiaries of those tax revenues: early-childhood education; drug treatment and prevention; local drug- and alcohol-program facilities; and administration of marijuana laws and regulations, enforcement, training, and outreach.

But the effect of piling too many straws on its camel’s back? “Wait a year and let the industry mature,” advised Steve Barwick, the city manager. And so Aspen will do so.

Will Willie Nelson do an ad?

And finally, this: the governor’s office is to get Willie Nelson to do a commercial. It would have the singer-song writer introducing himself; “Hi, I’m Willie Nelson. I need to give you some important information about smoking marijuana when you’re young, but I can’t really remember what it is I was supposed to say.”


About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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