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City Council tilts toward pot retailing

By: monica mendoza
June 1, 2013 Updated: June 1, 2013 at 1:20 pm

Despite Mayor Steve Bach's opposition to retail marijuana stores, the Colorado Springs City Council may be leaning toward approval, provided the "freshmen six" stick to their campaign promises.

The six new council members, along with three returning council members, will decide over the summer whether to allow retail pot stores in Colorado Springs.

They've already heard public comments from proponents who say the city needs to follow the will of voters who approved Amendment 64 in November, allowing retail marijuana sales in Colorado. They've also heard from retired generals and university officials who say selling pot in retail stores is bad for the community and will hurt economic development.

And they know where Bach stands.

But the freshmen six had their own opinions during the campaign, with three saying they were willing to permit regulated retail sales. Two favored a ban, and one - District 1 Councilman Don Knight - was undecided. Based on interviews last week, it seems they haven't changed their minds.

At least two other council members would have to side with the three freshmen who are leaning toward approval to open the door to retail establishments in Colorado Springs, so it's not a done deal.

Knight's decision could hinge on a public meeting at 1 p.m. June 27 at City Hall.

"I'm still undecided," Knight said. "I'm really looking forward to our town hall meeting June 27. I expect it to be very educational."

During the campaign, Knight said his core ethics do not support recreational use of marijuana, but he added that he was taught to respect the laws, "not just the ones I like." He said then he wanted to hear from District 1 residents, the city attorney and the governor's task force before making a decision.

His top concern is public safety, he said. He wants to make sure that pot is kept out of the hands of children and impaired drivers are kept off the road.

District 3 Councilman and Council President Keith King said during the campaign that before he would consider voting in favor of retail sales, the city would need to ensure that zoning requirements were adequate to keep marijuana stores a safe distance from schools. The city also would need to keep pot shops out of residential neighborhoods.

Fundamentally, however, King is sticking with his campaign pledge to support marijuana sales if pot is taxed like alcohol. But he said Friday it would be best for the city to hold off on a decision until after November, when Colorado voters will be asked to approve a 15 percent excise tax and a 10 percent sales tax on marijuana sales.

"I think that is a big part of this: how we will tax it," King said. "I have not changed my position. I made the commitment, that if it becomes taxed like alcohol, I would support regulation."

Helen Collins of District 4, said during her campaign that City Council must not override the will of the people.

"It must obey the constitution, despite personal disagreement with election results. We must not block lawful products nor create legal confusion," Collins said at the time. "We must stop being anti-business."

This week, Collins said she did not want to comment further until after the June 27 public hearing.

Jill Gaebler, District 5, said during the campaign that she respected the will of the voters, and she reiterated her stand.

"If we ban it, they will drive to the nearest municipality and get it and use the product," she said Friday. "I feel like if we ban it, the only thing we are forgoing is the potential tax revenue."

Earlier this week, the president of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance told council that some businesses scouting the city had expressed concern about retail marijuana sales. The business alliance asked council to ban sales in Colorado Springs.

The business alliance makes a compelling argument, and most of the freshmen six ran on job creation, Gaebler said. However, she said the same argument about job loss was made before the City Council voted whether to allow medical marijuana dispensaries.

"That has not borne out," she said.

Sales in Colorado Springs medical marijuana dispensaries contributed $107,473 in sales tax to the city's coffers in April - up from 31 percent from last April.

"Medical marijuana has brought jobs to the community," Gaebler said. "There are already some social clubs (for recreational marijuana) and I want them to prosper. It's a growing market we should pursue."

The two councilmen who spoke against retail sales during the campaign season - Andy Pico of District 6 and Joel Miller of District 2 - have not been persuaded to change their minds.

Pico said there are too many medical issues related to marijuana use, and it's against federal law.

"The legal and tax issues inherent in Amendment 64 are complex and will put the city in conflict with federal laws on marijuana," he said.

Miller is also concerned that marijuana use is illegal under federal law. He said he might feel more comfortable if the state banded together to say to Congress that it finds the Controlled Substances Act to be unconstitutional. Instead, he said, it seems state lawmakers are hoping that federal law enforcement will ignore Colorado, and that's not enough to sway him.

The three veterans on the council have not taken a stand. Val Snider said he's undecided and still wants more information.

"I'm waiting for a more complete picture on the trade off of the tax revenue and the impacts on the community," Snider said. "I need to hear more from the public."

Jan Martin she is hesitant to prejudge the issue before hearing public input.

"Council can decide after the town hall if they need more information," said Martin, the only council member who did not vote on a resolution in November opposing Amendment 64. "We will try to structure it so that all voices are heard."

The ninth council member, Merv Bennett, could not be reached for comment.

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