Banished from Main Street in Breck
Many Colorado mountain towns wary of retail marijuana
by Allen Best
BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. – With its vote during early December to send a marijuana dispensary skedaddling from Main Street to the edge of town, Breckenridge would seem to be veering toward caution, a flip-flop from past votes.
Breckenridge in past years has consistently voted for more liberalized marijuana laws and by wide margins.
When medical marijuana became legalized, the town council responded by allowing dispensaries on Main Street, although not on street-level units. The town in 2009 became the second in Colorado, behind Denver, to decriminalize possession of less than an ounce.
And in 2012, when 55 percent of Colorado voters supported legalization of cannabis for recreational use, 73 percent in Breck voted in support.
So what do you make of December’s vote, in which 70 percent urged the town council to keep cannabis off Main Street? (That very night, the town council did just that.)
In this decision, Breckenridge is trending with the mainstream of mountain resort towns in Colorado. Few allow cannabis sales in central, tourist-oriented business districts. Aspen and Telluride are exceptions in treating marijuana retailers more or less the same as liquor retailers. (See story from Telluride).
Fraser allows it in its business districts but requires a 1,000-foot distance from schools, which effectively puts much of the business district off limits.
Elsewhere, the theme is to allow marijuana stores, but only in select areas.
Steamboat Springs decided to cap the number of recreational dispensaries at three, the same as before for medicinal outlets. None are allowed on Lincoln Avenue or adjoining areas, the traditional downtown for Steamboat, or in the commercial area at the base of the ski area. Some other areas are allowed, says Tyler Gibbs, planning director, but the three are all to the west along Highway 40, in a service-oriented business district.
Eagle has one all-purpose dispensary and grow operation, with another expected to open in a 4,000-square-foot building by late summer of 2015, reports Tom Boni, town planner. They are restricted to the east end of Chambers Avenue—in a service-oriented business district on the edge of town.
Frisco also keeps marijuana off Main Street. It has three dispensaries, the most recent being Native Roots, which has five stores along the Front Range and in the mountains. In what many noted with a smile, it replaces an A&W Root Beer stand that for years had Biblical verses on its marquee. You can find another dispensary snuggled in the shopping complex between Walmart and Safeway, and yet a third next to a dermatologist.
What you won’t find in Frisco is a dispensary on Main Street. They’re all along Highway 9.
Even Vail, while it has not opened the door to marijuana, either medical or recreational, has something similar to the situation in Breckenridge. Three shops have now opened in Eagle-Vail, in unincorporated Eagle County, just west of the Vail town limits. The string of dispensaries is dubbed the Green Mile.
But the Breckenridge story is most interesting because the vote seems to represent such an about-face, dreadlocks replaced by penny-loafers.
In 2009, the town council authorized medical marijuana dispensaries to operate in downtown locations, so long as they stayed on upper floors. Most, however, gravitated over time to the town’s northern edge, in a service-oriented business district along Airport Road.
Locals dubbed it “Airpot” Road, and as of Christmas three dispensaries were operating next to businesses such as landscaping companies and plumbers in typical suburban prefab warehouse-type buildings.
The stores are all fastidious about doing age checks, carding even those people who would seem to need such age verification only for senior citizen discounts.
Product names suggest the sinister: Venom OG, White Widow, and Agent Orange, for example. They’re all on street-level locations, but there’s a bit of the underground atmosphere. You don’t see much natural light in these stores. They feel like basements.
But for a business decision, The Breckenridge Cannabis Club might have been allowed to stay on the second floor of the old yellow house on Main Street it had occupied since 2009. In 2013, the owners approached the town government with plans to convert from medical to recreational sales, expanding the potential pool of customers. The owners wanted permission to for this conversion. The town council had said yes to medical marijuana on Main Street, but not to recreational sales.
In a spirit of compromise, the Cannabis Club got a grace period for remaining at its Main Street location, even after converting to recreational sales.
Last summer, the owners approached the council again, seeking authority to remain as a recreational dispensary.
This time, council members were split. A cap on the number of dispensaries? Only second-floor locations? The council chose to sponsor a non-binding plebiscite among town voters.
The core issue was not about cannabis sales, but where they should be allowed. The fundamental concern of many, including a group called Breckenridge for Thoughtful Marijuana, was that cannabis stores on Main Street posed too much risk to the town’s family-friendly tourism “brand.”
Three former mayors, with a combined tenure of 16 years, also warned of “big risk, little upside. The town should watch marijuana evolve in Colorado and the nation carefully while continuing to encourage retail and medical marijuana sales (in the service area),” said the letter signed by Chuck Struve, Sam Mamula, and Ernie Blake.
“When marijuana goes mainstream,” they added, “our Main Street may then be ready. But not now, not yet.”
“The reality is that in the world of vacation destinations Breckenridge has a great deal of competition,” wrote Bob Gorman in a letter published in the Summit Daily News. He characterized marijuana stores on Main Street as an “experiment,” with “marijuana moguls”—as the title of one upcoming national television series calls pot entrepreneurs—gaining, but potentially the whole community losing.
The staff and owners of the Breckenridge Cannabis Club were having none of these arguments. In their letter, they point to hypocrisy by those – including the mayors and lodging proprietors—who condone alcohol sales at bars and restaurants but sniff at cannabis sales.
That argument did not carry the day.
What explains the change?
Has Breck changed? There’s evidence that the town has become more conservative as retirees in their ‘60s, many with past lives in corporate America, converted second homes into primary residences. That demographic shift seemed to be evident in a recent vote in which a proposal for public funding of child care failed. Some saw a new sensibility in Breckenridge several years ago in the pushback against mandatory removal of woody debris around homes.
Tim Gagen, the town manager, says that anecdotal evidence suggests most segments of the community, including long-time locals, preferred to keep cannabis shops on the town fringes and off Main Street. The only demographic in support of Main Street dispensaries consisted of newer, younger residents, such as those recently arrived to work the winter season.
What may have been a factor were statements made by one of the cannabis store employees to a national TV crew. Although I did not see that video, the owner reportedly came across as a braggart, with boasts about buying the town. One individual thought that those statements may have altered the margin of the vote slightly, say 5 percent. Others thought the cannabis store lost the election because of those statements.
To get a better handle of just how much marijuana sales put off some visitors, Breckenridge may do a survey. But will the town ask the same question about alcohol?
Clearly, prohibition of alcohol did not work. Just as clearly, prohibition of marijuana has not worked, either. The reason marijuana was made illegal was because of the supposed ill effects on individuals and hence society.
It’s clear enough now that many of the underlying reasons for Congress to effectively outlaw marijuana use in 1937 were shamefully bogus. They were about power and control. Even the American Medical Association objected.
Evaluating societal risk
Does that give cannabis a clean bill of health? The Society of Risk Analysis recently met in Denver, devoting one of the plenary sessions to Colorado’s “great social experiment,” as Gov. John Hickenlooper put it.
Before introducing the speakers, David Goff, the dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, pointed out that relatively little medical research has been conducted into the public health impacts of cannabis consumption. “What’s striking is how little we know,” he said. “There’s a lot more to be learned. But that doesn’t mean we made the wrong decision here in Colorado.”
He went on to say that our policy of criminalization of marijuana use has had the effect of putting many young men in prisons, which by nobody’s stretch of the imagination can be construed as a public health advancement.
Later speakers began breaking down what is known about public health benefits, as well as what is still unknown. Smoking? Not good, no matter what the substance. Effects on still-developing brains? No really good science yet.
Even though Telluride has embraced cannabis sales without regrets, that is the greatest concern of Mayor Stu Fraser.
For now, in Breckenridge, the cannabis stores will be off Main Street. Some people think they’ll be back in five years. One hotel concierge I spoke with said many customers inquire about cannabis, seeking transportation to Airport Road dispensaries. The hotel treats it the same as tobacco, meaning that it cannot be smoked in rooms.
For now, customers will have to go to the town’s green light district. In its mining era, Breckenridge also had a red-light district, where prostitutes operated. It wasn’t in the gingerbread Victorian houses along Main Street, but in the shacks along the Blue River.
This story is from the Dec. 30, 2014, issue of Mountain Town News. For a sample copy, please e-mail email@example.com. Or, you can toss a PayPal tip into the Tip Jar in the upper-right hand of this page.