Marijuana establishments hoping to set up shop in Rifle under Colorado's voter-approved constitutional amendment that legalized the possession and use of less than 1 ounce of marijuana by those over 21 will have to wait awhile.
The city council informally agreed at a Feb. 20 workshop to consider an ordinance at an upcoming meeting to enact a temporary moratorium on such businesses for the rest of this year.
Rifle would join a growing list of Colorado local governments that have acted since voters across the state approved amendment 64 in the November election.
Police Chief John Dyer asked the council for direction on the issue. The amendment allows municipalities to either allow or prohibit the retail sales of marijuana through an ordinance, or wait to hold an election on the issue in 2014, Dyer said.
He recommended the city put a moratorium on retail sales, since the state has yet to develop any rules or regulations for such businesses, Dyer said.
The state has until July 31 to do so, and if they fail to do so, municipalities that decide to allow the sale of marijuana must have rules in place by Oct. 1.
"I think a moratorium will give us time to see how this all works in places that do allow sales," Dyer told the council.
Dyer said the amendment should have regulated marijuana as a prescription drug.
"When it comes to the recreational sales of marijuana, I'm against it personally," Dyer continued. "That's from a health of the community view and what I've seen in terms of damage done by substance abuse across the board. It's like if you're in a pit with snakes and you throw in another snake. It's not good."
Dyer said 26 Colorado municipalities had adopted ordinances dealing with the sale of marijuana. The city has had interest from at least one applicant for a marijuana growing operation, Dyer said.
City Attorney Jim Neu noted that even without a moratorium, no licenses for retail sales can be sought until Oct. 1.
"I don't think we really have to do anything, the way the law is written," Neu said. "It's more of a safety net."
The police department has not spent "a lot of resources" on cases involving the possession of small amounts of marijuana, Dyer said.
"We'd issue tickets into municipal court instead of taking them to jail," he said.
Passage of amendment 64 will make it tougher to enforce marijuana laws, Dyer said.
"It's still going to be against the law to sell marijuana, but how do we determine what's going on?" Dyer asked. "Under the law, it's OK if you just give it away. And driving under the influence of marijuana is going to be a really big problem in terms of how we enforce it."
Dyer noted there is no set limit similar to alcohol, and the department plans to have more officers undergo drug resistance education training, so several officers can respond to calls involving suspected "high" drivers, he added.
"I've been in law enforcement for 30 years and I can tell you there are a vast amount of issues we get involved in that stem from the use of drugs," Dyer said. "My personal opinion is that we shouldn't be doing anything to promote the use of marijuana, but the voters have spoken."
Another unknown is how the federal government will deal with retail sales of marijuana, especially if marijuana sold in Colorado crosses state lines, Dyer said.
Neu said there has been talks of bills in Congress that would exempt Colorado and Washington from federal marijuana laws, since voters in both states approved the use of the drug. However, the fate of those bills is likely years down the road, Neu added.
Pros and cons debated
City Councilwoman Jennifer Sanborn was initially unsure a moratorium was needed.
"When you think of the types of businesses you might think of as ruining the quality of life in Rifle, I can give you a list and I think there are many others worse than this," she said.
Councilman Jonathan Rice said while he strongly supports private property rights, "I'm hugely uncomfortable with the federal law on this right now."
"I think the sales of this drug is a violation of federal law, and that has to matter," Rice added. "If Congress were to actually reverse the law, it would be a different discussion. So I'm leaning toward a prohibition of the entire thing."
Sanborn said most people across Colorado voted for amendment 64, "So I don't think it would be quite right to have this little bubble in Rifle that goes against that."
In Rifle, Dyer noted, voters cast nine more ballots against amendment 64 than in favor of the measure. Rifle voters cast 1,515 votes in favor of the measure, or 49.85 percent, and 1,524 votes against it, or 50.15 percent.
"So I think you could look at either a moratorium or even a prohibition as not going against most voters in Rifle," Dyer said.
Medical marijuana a question, too
Sanborn added that while the way medical marijuana was handled by the state was a mistake, "I'm pleased with the local businesses we have in Rifle, from what I've seen."
Existing medical marijuana shops are not affected by the amendment, Dyer said, except to be prevented from converting their businesses into retail shops, or opening such establishments.
Dan Meskin owns Rifle's first medical marijuana shop, Green Cross Dispensary, at 120 E. Third Street, and attended the workshop. He noted the City of Grand Junction banned all medical marijuana shops after several had opened.
"That just led to the sales being driven underground on the black market," Meskin added. "So they have no pre-regulation of the product or safety standards, they're losing out on all the sales tax dollars. And they haven't gotten rid of marijuana. It's still there."
The shops in Rifle, Meskin noted, see customers from Grand Junction, "since we have strict regulations, the safety of the product is ensured, so everything we sell is completely safe," Meskin added. "We deal with people who depend on us."
After listening to Meskin and others, Sanborn said she had changed her mind and would favor a "temporary moratorium, until the state has its regulations in place."
The city criminal code will also have to be changed to reflect the new law, Neu said.
Councilman Rich Carter asked if retail sales of marijuana would increase use of the drug, or just bring users out into the open.
"That's what I've always believed," Meskin said. "It's always been accessible, so I think you'll just see users that had been hiding themselves."
Carter agreed, but Dyer disagreed and said he felt the number of users will increase with legalization.
Neu noted that even if Rifle allows retail shops, underground use and sales of marijuana will continue.
Rice said he worried about the impact the change will have on families.
"Kids are being significantly hammered in some homes already by substance abuse," the Rifle High School teacher said. "If this makes it easier for those abusers to get what they need, I think it just agitates one of the most significant social issues in our country: What is happening in homes to our kids?"