El Paso County forges ahead on pot ban

December 18, 2012
photo - This Nov. 8 photo shows marijuana plants flourishing under the lights at a grow house in Denver. Photo by Ed Andrieski, AP Photo
This Nov. 8 photo shows marijuana plants flourishing under the lights at a grow house in Denver. Photo by Ed Andrieski, AP Photo 

El Paso County is among the first local governments in the state to push ahead with an outright ban on retail marijuana operations after the November passage of Amendment 64.

The Board of County Commissioners voted 4-1 on Tuesday to advance an ordinance that would prohibit the operation of recreational marijuana cultivation facilities, product manufacturing facilities, testing facilities and retail stores in unincorporated areas. The ordinance is scheduled for second reading and final approval Jan. 15.

In a separate vote, county commissioners unanimously approved a resolution prohibiting the possession, consumption, use or display of marijuana on county property, including county parks and government buildings.

Several marijuana advocates urged county commissioners to postpone action until the work of a task force Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed to implement Amendment 64 is complete.

“You’re jumping the gun here,” Robert Nemanich said. “I don’t know what the urgency is … I think this is political theater.”

But Joe Reich Jr., a member of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance’s Military Affairs Council, said the matter required swift action. He said the council has “grave concerns” about the ability to attract additional high-tech and defense companies to Colorado Springs after passage of Amendment 64.

“In speaking with an executive, one of the things they don’t want to mess with is additional drug testing, so they’ll choose to go somewhere else,” he said. “I feel like I’m speaking after the barn door is closed and the horses are out, but I urge you to take a strong position.”

Amendment 64 legalized the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and six marijuana plants for adults ages 21 and older. It also legalized retail sales of recreational marijuana, but local governments can ban retail operations by an ordinance or ballot measure.

In El Paso County, Amendment 64 passed by just 10 votes. But 55 percent of voters in the unincorporated areas voted against it, Assistant County Attorney Lori Seago said. Commissioner Peggy Littleton, whose district encompasses the city of Colorado Springs, cast the lone dissenting vote against the ordinance banning retail marijuana operations.

Littleton advocated a regional approach and said the county shouldn’t “overreact.”

“Even at Colorado Counties Inc., at the conference we just had, from everybody that I talked to, there are more questions than there are answers right now,” she said. “How can we forbid and prohibit something that we don’t even know what the questions are yet, much less the answers?”

So far, only two other governments — Douglas County and Parker — have banned retail marijuana operations, according to a recent presentation from the Colorado Springs City Attorney’s Office. Colorado Springs is taking a wait-and-see approach.

Clint Darnell, a general contractor, said county commissioners were hurting the economy by enacting a ban.

“Over the last six months, I have hired seven employees that have been working on marijuana facilities. Four of those employees live in unincorporated El Paso County, three carpenters and a laborer, and I took them off the unemployment rolls to work in marijuana facilities,” he said. “By stopping the growth of marijuana facilities in the county, the county is going to suffer from sales tax loss (and) employment opportunities.”

But Commissioner Dennis Hisey said the county had an “immediate need” to act.

“When we were dealing with medical marijuana … there were folks that immediately got into the business … and spent a lot of money and then as we passed our regulations, not only did they threaten to sue us, but they did,” he said. “If we get this out there right now, I don’t have to worry about uncertainty.”

The county could always “reverse course” if the state develops regulations “that we can live with,” Hisey added.

“We can always decide to allow them,” he said.

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