VAIL, Colorado - Both Breckenridge and Vail are family-friendly ski towns that attract visitors from around the world each year, so why do the town leaders from each town differ on medical marijuana laws?
The Vail Town Council voted to ban medical marijuana dispensaries from opening up within the town, while Breckenridge voted to allow dispensaries.
Breckenridge Councilwoman Jennifer McAtamney said the Breckenridge Town Council felt the voters of Colorado had approved medical marijuana and it wasn't the town's place to go against that decision.
"Out of respect for that decision [in 2000], we felt we needed to accommodate it in some way," McAtamney said. "But it couldn't be just a free-for-all."
So the town decided to allow dispensaries, but with heavy regulations such as no doctors are allowed to work on-site at dispensaries, inventory controls, security measures like surveillance cameras and air filtration systems to control the smell of the marijuana.
"We didn't feel at the time, considering the will of the voters, to deny it totally," said Breckenridge Town Councilman Jeffrey Bergeron, who's also a medical marijuana cardholder. "We felt that medical use of marijuana and recreational use in your own home is something that the community feels is a low priority issue."
Vail Mayor Dick Cleveland said allowing the pot shops in Vail "flies in the face of the tone we've tried to set in this community."
Vail leaders have a vision for Vail to be "the premier mountain resort community." They want Vail to be No. 1 again in Ski Magazine's annual rankings - a position they've lost to Deer Valley, Utah, in recent years. The 2010 survey ranked Vail third, behind Deer Valley and Whistler, British Columbia.
While the rankings are for the ski resort, town leaders feel a lot of the responsibility for making the top spot. Skiers and snowboarders visiting Vail don't typically distinguish the town from the ski resort - they're one in the same, Vail town leaders say.
Medical marijuana dispensaries, however, don't align with the image Vail wants, some Vail Town Council members have said.
"To me it's just that when you've got guests coming here from all over the country and all over the world, I just don't think we need to have it here in town," Councilman Kevin Foley said. "Guests coming into town might think, 'Oh, great, I can get some weed in Vail.'"
The right regulations
Bergeron said the town of Breckenridge has tried to eliminate some of the so-called "tainted image" possibilities through zoning and other regulations. Dispensaries also can't display marijuana leaf artwork in the window or anywhere along their storefront. The shops won't be located along Main Street, either.
The regulations are exactly what Vail Town Councilwoman Margaret Rogers wanted for Vail - Rogers was the only dissenting vote on the Vail pot shop ban. She said Vail could find a way to make dispensaries work within the town through regulations - much like the ones Breckenridge has put in place.
"The primary reason I support it is because it's legal," Rogers said. "The people of the state voted and determined they wanted it to be available for those who need it. It seems to me a town council doesn't have the right to override what the people say they want to happen."
Rogers, a retired attorney, said she can almost guarantee there will be a lawsuit, and probably several, that challenges state and municipality decisions to ban something legal in the state constitution.
"I don't believe you can regulate a legal activity to the point where you can no longer exercise your right," Rogers said. "My feeling is the Colorado Supreme Court will determine the ban to be unconstitutional, so [the Vail Town Council will] be looking at this again anyway."
Representing citizens, guests or both?
The town of Breckenridge and the Summit Daily News have both received letters from out-of-towners claiming they'd never visit Breckenridge again because of its stance on marijuana - the town also got letters from people saying they would absolutely come back, McAtamney said.
Bergeron said he respects the views of Breckenridge visitors, but, as a Town Council member, he serves Breckenridge residents.
"Personally speaking, I knew this could put off or irritate some of our visitors, but as an elected official, who do I represent? The people who live here and make a living in this town," Bergeron said.
Both Bergeron and McAtamney agree that since the town's 2009 decriminalization of recreational marijuana passed, which essentially says anyone 21 and over can legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana, there haven't been any more instances of people using pot in town.
The town of Breckenridge received some negative response from the decriminalization law, but Bergeron said the negative letters were mainly from people who didn't understand that the citizens were the ones who put the issue on the ballot in the first place.
"They thought the town took up the initiative," Bergeron said.
Bergeron and McAtamney said the same has happened since the town's six current dispensaries have opened for business - that there aren't more marijuana-related problems within the town.
"I think what people find when they get here is that things haven't really changed," McAtamney said.