Updated: June 2, 2014 at 7:12 am
Pueblo County is evolving into the place to be for pot growers, a distinction that is creating concerns among some residents and at least one law enforcement official who says such operations are attractive to drug cartels.
The Pueblo County Commission, however, sees the grow operations as an impetus for revenue and jobs.
The commission has approved about 20 so far, Commissioner Sal Pace said, and more are coming.
"We put a cap on the number of retail stores in Pueblo - 10 - but no cap on the grows," he said.
While county officials see grow operations as a potential economic driver, not everybody is buying in. Some residents in Pueblo West, a sprawling residential area of about 28,000 where many of the marijuana operations are just starting to fight back.
On May 20, the county commissioners approved five licenses, but not without opposition from Pueblo West residents.
The commissioners "are changing the fabric of our community without asking what we want," said Paula McPheeters, who has lived there for about 17 years.
McPheeters is at the vanguard of a groundswell of opposition to the marijuana industry's growing impact in her community. She presented a petition to the commissioners signed by about 40 Pueblo West residents against approval of any more pot businesses in their area during the May 20 meeting.
The commissioners approved all applications unanimously.
Since Pueblo West residents have aired their concerns, McPheeters said she has been contacted by residents from other parts of the county and as far away as Fremont County.
"It's more than a pot issue," she said. "My beef isn't the legalization of marijuana, it's that our county commissioners are not representing us. They are telling us what to do. Ultimately, it's up to the citizens of the community to decide what they want."
Despite the outcry, Pace said growing operations spark less conflict than retail stores.
"Stores tend to elicit more controversy and concern from some local residents, while the growers tend to be more private and less intrusive to neighborhoods," he said.
Most of the grow operations that have been approved in the county are about a couple of acres. That's because they are inside greenhouses, which allows for more controls against the weather.
The commissioners, Pace said, are adhering to the will of Pueblo County voters, who overwhelmingly supported Amendment 64.
"I believe in the free market," he said. "And I think we see potential for a new tax revenue and for jobs in Pueblo."
Indeed, the county is looking at adding a tax on grow operations in November.
"I think there's a way to generate more tax from these grows," Pace said.
The jobs picture is also on the commissioners' minds. In April, the Pueblo metropolitan area had the highest unemployment rate in Colorado, at 8.2 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Unemployment. By comparison, Colorado's unemployment rate was 6 percent in April.
Pueblo County is attractive to pot growers because of the warm climate and abundant water, and because the commissioners have welcomed grow operations, said Pueblo County Sheriff Kirk Taylor.
"Number one, it's been embraced by the commissioners," he said. "They've been trying to be at the forefront of zoning regulations. The foundational pieces are being established here quicker than in some other places."
Of 19 marijuana license applicants as of February, about a dozen were proposed in Pueblo West, according to the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office. They are a mix of medical, recreational, manufacturing and cultivation operations. Not all of them were approved, however.
But tracking them is complicated, said Gilbert Ortiz, Pueblo County clerk and recorder.
Some operations have dual medical and retail operations with separate grow operations. Some are medical only.
As of May 23, the county had 12 licensed medical cultivations and nine approved medical cultivations; nine licensed retail cultivations, and two approved retail cultivations. "Licensed" means approved by both state and county. "Approved" means approved only by the county.
Mexican cartels are certainly aware of the favorable growing conditions, according to Taylor.
A 2012 bust of a grow operation of 14,000 plants in the county - the largest in the state's history - has been linked by the Drug Enforcement Administration in Dallas to Mexican cartels, Taylor said. The original estimate of the number of plants was around 9,000, he said.
Now, with the addition of recreational marijuana, the number of grows is skyrocketing.
"It's absolutely horrible," Taylor said. "It's putting a serious drain on the manpower of this agency. It's not allowed in city limits so all the grows are in the county and mostly in Pueblo West."
Among his chief concerns is the number of grow operations in Pueblo County for retail and medical operations in other parts of the state.
Growers seeking licenses are from Denver, Colorado Springs, Durango, Littleton and Centennial, among other areas. The Gazette contacted several of them, including Today's Health Care in Colorado Springs, but none returned calls.
Pueblo County, Taylor said, is "the pot grow location for the majority of the pot in the state."