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Gazette Premium Content Manitou Springs officials weigh issues that could come with legal marijuana sales

By Matt Steiner Updated: January 21, 2014 at 8:04 am

Manitou Springs Police Chief Joe Ribeiro is anticipating challenges his staff might face if the City Council takes the final step Tuesday to make retail marijuana sales legal in the town at the foot of Pikes Peak.

The Manitou Springs council will hear the second reading of an amendment to the city code Tuesday that would allow for two retail pot stores in the town of about 5,200 people. Council members voted 6-1 in favor on the first reading Jan. 7.

Ribeiro said public use of marijuana, excessive purchases that could lead to illegal possession and the potential movement of legally bought pot to the black market are among his concerns leading up to the vote and the Jan. 31 end of the town's moratorium on retail sales. But the police chief said what concerns him the most is the dangerous potential for "drugged drivers" getting behind the steering wheel.

"It frightens me," Ribeiro said.

The chief said in many cases people make it a point to have a designated driver when going to the bar or a party where drinking alcohol is in the plan. He said that notion is a direct result of decades of educating people that drinking and driving is a "bad thing."

"I don't get that good feeling when it comes to marijuana." Ribeiro said. "It doesn't seem to me that our culture is seeing that driving under the influence of marijuana is a deadly thing. When you boil it all down, it's an intoxicant. If it wasn't, it wouldn't be so popular."

Ribeiro added that prosecuting people for drunken driving is more black-and-white than in cases of driving under the influence of pot. He said while a .08-reading on a breath test is all that is needed for evidence in a drunken-driving case, a blood test is needed to prove pot users were driving intoxicated. And even if the blood test is positive, more evidence is needed to prosecute.

Another concern for the Manitou Springs Police Department centers on public use. Ribeiro said since the November 2012 passage of Colorado Constitutional Amendment 64, he alone has arrested more than 20 people for smoking pot in public.

"Everyone I've contacted for smoking in public said, 'But it's legal,'" he said.

The state amendment made it legal for people 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana or grow up to six pot plants for personal use, but kept public consumption out of bounds.

Amendment 64 also made provisions for each municipality to decide whether to "opt out" of having retail pot shops.

The closest municipalities to Manitou Springs that have legalized retail marijuana are Pueblo and Denver. Colorado Springs and El Paso County opted out while Palmer Lake decided to leave it to the voters in its regular April election.

Ribeiro said his department has not researched Colorado towns that had pot stores open Jan. 1 to see what challenges they've faced since retail marijuana sales became legal in the state under Amendment 64. He said the focus has been on what is best for Manitou Springs.

That approach is shared by the town administration. Manitou Springs city administrator Jack Benson echoed Ribeiro about borrowing from other towns.

"Obviously, everyone wants to benefit from lessons learned, but as I keep reiterating, this is all still very new," Benson said via email.

Manitou Springs placed a moratorium on retail marijuana sales Sept. 3, and extended that to Jan. 31 in early December. Since summer, the council held multiple public comment sessions and formed a task force to consider the needs of all. Several people have been outspoken in support of or against legalizing retail marijuana sales.

If the seven-member council votes Tuesday to amend the city code, it could be months before the first retail pot store opens up, Benson said, noting that the licensing process will include approval from the state and multitiered process before going to a vote of the Manitou council.

The city code amendment outlines stringent rules for licensing and locations of potential retail stores.

Sales are limited to 1 ounce per transaction for Colorado residents and a quarter ounce for people from other states. The council discussed limiting the amount of transactions per day during the Jan. 7 meeting. As a result, the ordinance that will be voted Tuesday will limit customers to one transaction per day.

Council members and residents who were part of the task force that formed in November said the amendment to the city code was crafted to ensure all Manitou Springs residents would be "comfortable" with the way retail pot stores are regulated.

"I think council has been very measured and deliberate in their consideration of public input and actions to make sure the city has the proper regulations in place, regardless how this issue may play out," Benson said.

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