An El Paso County commissioner on Tuesday publicly accused Gov. John Hickenlooper of turning a blind eye to potential negative effects of legal recreational marijuana to protect an industry that has generated millions in tax revenue for the state.
The governor called Longinos Gonzalez Jr.'s claim "absolute nonsense" during a question-and-answer session at an annual winter conference for Colorado local governments, held at the Hotel Elegante in Colorado Springs.
The clash, which highlights the staunch anti-marijuana stance of many elected leaders in El Paso County, comes as Sheriff Bill Elder is gearing up for an enforcement effort aimed at stamping out hundreds of illegal grows in rural parts of the county that he and other officials view as a public safety risk.
Gonzalez cited issues that anti-marijuana advocates across the state have used repeatedly in their arguments against the drug's legalization: an increase in marijuana-related car crashes, a rising number of underage residents who have begun using the drug and a surge in homelessness - all claims that the industry's proponents contend have been debunked.
When Gonzalez asked Hickenlooper if he believes these trends are related to legal recreational marijuana, the governor replied: "Some are, some aren't."
Research has supported both sides of the debate. Controversial statistics from federally funded agencies, such as the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, have supported the notion that underage use is on the rise. Other studies have found no change - or even a decrease - in the percentage of teens using marijuana since legalization. Experts and analysts who have weighed in on the drug's potential ties to homelessness have offered varying conclusions.
Much of the buzz about an uptick in marijuana-related car accidents stems from the fact that many Colorado law enforcement agencies only recently began testing drivers who were at fault in collisions for marijuana, which inflates the number of pot-caused crashes "because we don't have a good baseline," Hickenlooper said.
A pro-marijuana group contacted by The Gazette echoed Hickenlooper's point about crash numbers. In addition, because someone can test positive for marijuana use weeks after using the drug, investigators can't be sure that the person was high when a collision happened just by testing his or her DNA, said Jason Warf, executive director of the Southern Colorado Cannabis Council.
Warf attributed the uptick in homelessness to the state's overall rising population.
Hickenlooper added in his response to Gonzalez that the state uses much of the tax revenue generated by the marijuana industry to pay for substance abuse prevention and treatment initiatives, such as programs to educate teens about the dangers of using pot.
Last year, the industry generated roughly $200 million in revenue for the state from taxes, licenses and fees, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.
"We're not taking that money and using it to fill potholes," Hickenlooper said.
Gonzalez and fellow County Commissioners Mark Waller and Stan VanderWerf weren't satisfied with Hickenlooper's reply to the question.
"Some of his comments today seemed to indicate that he doesn't understand the damage that recreational marijuana is doing to Colorado," VanderWerf said in an interview.
Waller said the governor seemed to brush off his concerns about illegal grows when he spoke to Hickenlooper earlier that morning.
"This is a serious statewide problem that has happened as a result of the legalization of marijuana," Waller said. "And when our governor - even tacitly - endorses (legalization), he does further harm to the security of our state."
Sheriff Elder said in a recent interview that his office is aware of more than 550 marijuana home-grow operations in rural areas of the county that aren't in compliance with state law or will be in violation beginning Jan. 1 due to a policy change.
A noncommercial grower is now allowed up to about 500 plants, including plants authorized by a doctor or co-opted to them by another grower, if they have the proper documentation for the plants. But starting next year, a new law will cap the number of plants at 12 per household for recreational growers and 24 for medical cannabis patients and caregivers.
Elder plans to divert his office's mounted unit - two deputies on horseback who now perform traffic control, enforcement related to homelessness and other duties - to work alongside another sheriff's deputy and investigators with the multijurisdictional Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence Division to bust grows that will soon be illegal.
"It's these large grows that are clearly there for commercial purposes to export the product outside of the state of Colorado for financial gain - those are the ones we're focusing on," he said. "We're finally going to have law on our side instead of vague policy."
The sheriff is also weighing options for what to do with the large quantities of marijuana plants and products he anticipates the push will yield. The agency has considered investing in an incinerator or storage unit, Elder said.
Critics argue there's no valid public safety reason for the plant caps. Warf of the Southern Colorado Cannabis Council said the new "arbitrary plant limits" are part of an effort by law enforcement agencies across the state to gradually recriminalize marijuana to regain more forfeiture revenues, or money and property that offenders are forced to hand over to authorities when caught engaging in marijuana-related illegal activity.
"Most of these quote-on-quote issues are absolute nonsense," Warf said.
Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108