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Majority on Colorado Springs council leaning toward referendum on recreational pot

July 22, 2017 Updated: July 24, 2017 at 7:44 am
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A woman exhales while smoking a joint during the annual 420 marijuana rally on Parliament hill on Wednesday, April 20, 2016 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Even as Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers briefed federal agencies on the dangers he's seen in Colorado's legal pot market, the majority of City Council members said they support putting recreational marijuana sales to a citywide vote.

An informal poll of the City Council this week by The Gazette found a majority of its members - six - support a ballot measure asking whether to allow recreational marijuana sales within city limits.

A timeline for when - or even if - that might happen remains unclear. Still, their willingness marks a shift in city leaders' stance toward the recreational pot market after having avoided the increasingly lucrative industry since its creation five years ago.

It also comes amid mixed signals from the White House and Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the federal government's stance toward the growing list of states to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational use. That uncertainty fed fresh skepticism last week when federal Justice Department and drug policy officials visited the state for a closed-door tour of its legalized marijuana industry - a visit that included a stop in Suthers' office.

Any move toward recreational sales in the city could pit the council against the mayor, an avowed opponent who was spoken at length about his concerns about legalized marijuana sales.

City Council President Richard Skorman said voters deserve a chance to decide the matter for themselves.

"We need to have a big community discussion," Skorman said. "The majority of the voters here did support it."

Suthers countered that any such ballot measure would be "bad policy," calling potential passage a blow to the city's reputation as a strong military community, and to its brand as Olympic City USA.

"Getting high for fun doesn't fit in with that very well," he said. "I would not be happy."

The debate gained fresh traction in the hours and days after the federal officials' visit to Colorado - a pioneer in recreational marijuana sales.

Suthers was among several city and state leaders to meet with federal justice and drug policy officials last week.

A spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy framed the meetings as making good on an invitation by Gov. John Hickenlooper to check out the state's marijuana industry first-hand.

On Tuesday, Hickenlooper staff members and about 20 other state and law enforcement officials met with representatives from the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, the White House Domestic Policy Council, the Department of Justice and the State Department.

A day later, Suthers, local police and a local Drug Enforcement Agency agent met privately with the federal officials to discuss the region's black market for marijuana and ongoing cases. Later, the federal officials met with Dr. Kenneth Finn, an outspoken critic of legalized marijuana sales, as well as representatives from Colorado Springs School District 11.

"We viewed this as an opportunity to discuss with them our regulatory enforcement system - our priorities in regulating marijuana, protecting public health and public safety," said Mark Bolton, the governor's marijuana policy advisor. "We're pleased that they took us up on the invitation."

The meetings initially led to fears of a coming crackdown by the federal government, which still outlaws the drug. Industry proponents, however, eventually softened their stance - saying they were encouraged at the federal government's willingness to visit the state and learn more about the burgeoning industry.

"Hopefully it's a sign that they're taking a thoughtful approach to whatever policy they pursue," said Mason Tvert, a co-author of Amendment 64, the 2012 ballot measure that allowed for recreational marijuana sales across the state. "I would be more critical if they did not come out here."

Whether the state's second-largest city would possibly allow the billion-dollar industry within city limits remains unclear.

Of the state's five biggest cities, only Colorado Springs and Lakewood prohibit the sale of recreational pot, according to data by the Colorado Municipal League.

A previous City Council shot down the issue in 2013, leading to complaints from industry advocates that the city's leaders were bucking the wishes of constituents. While Amendment 64 passed by just 10 votes in El Paso County, it passed by nearly 5,000 votes in the city.

Colorado Springs currently has a single spot reserved on El Paso County's November ballot - potentially for a proposal on resurrecting a stormwater fee. If the city is unable to put that proposal together, due in September, recreational marijuana could potentially replace it, Skorman said.

But that's an unlikely scenario, he said, adding a vote on recreational marijuana this November could be too soon.

Disagreements about when, or even if to put it on the ballot remain among the other five council members who support a referendum - Yolanda Avila, President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler, David Geislinger, Bill Murray and Tom Strand. But the common denominator among them is anticipated revenue.

Strand said he sees Colorado Springs residents driving out of town to buy recreational marijuana and "that's revenue we're losing."

But he fears recreational marijuana would make its way into the hands of school children - a notion that keeps him on the fence about opening up the city to recreational sales.

"That scares the hell out of me," he said.

Last week, a report found that Colorado has surpassed $500 million in tax collections from recreational marijuana sales.

Gaebler said she can see the benefits in Manitou Springs, the city's closest neighbor to allow retail pot sales. If something similar were to take place in Colorado Springs, it would need to be tailored to meet the city's values, she said.

Opposed are council members Andy Pico and Merv Bennett, who said any additional revenue would be offset by societal costs.

"I'm not interested in changing my values over the money," Bennett said.

City Councilman Don Knight could not immediately be reached for comment, but in the past has vocally opposed legalizing recreational marijuana.

For now, they're in the minority.

Avila questioned why city leaders might wait on something that would provide additional revenue.

"I support it, but with strong regulations and restrictions on how many recreational facilities can be throughout the city," she said.

Whether to take the issue to a vote depends largely on the federal government, President Donald Trump and Sessions, Geislinger said.

"Frankly I'm concerned of federal overreach," Geislinger said. "I'm real concerned that whatever it is that we do, this administration will try to interject itself and say we can't do it."

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