Garfield County puts medical pot ban to voters
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
The decision of whether to permit or ban medical marijuana facilities in unincorporated Garfield County is now up to the voters.
The Board of County Commissioners voted Tuesday, by a margin of 2-1 (with Mike Samson dissenting), to put three questions on the November general ballot, asking voters in regard to unincorporated county areas if they want to ban dispensaries; ban marijuana growing operations; or ban facilities that produce “medical marijuana infused” products, such as cookies, ice cream or other comestibles laced with marijuana.
The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, as well as the cultivation and sale of it for that purpose, were approved by the state’s voters in 2000. A recent state law aims at refining and tightening the restrictions on the resultant industry.
The commissioners’ decision came after a four-hour hearing on the topic, including remarks from attorneys and owners of medical marijuana “centers” aimed at discouraging the commissioners from putting the matter to a vote.
“You have a danger of the tyranny of the majority occurring,” explained attorney Brett Barney.
Barney argued that voters acting out of emotional opposition to marijuana as a recreational drug, or a lack of information concerning the true nature of medical marijuana, might override the constitutional rights of those patients who say they need marijuana to deal with debilitating or painful illnesses.
Noting that only 2 percent of the general population is believed to need and use medical marijuana, he said there is “a significant segment of the population who does not believe that marijuana has a medicinal use.”
Another attorney, Robert Corry, said it is estimated that there are 1,000 medical marijuana patients currently living in Garfield County.
The commissioners, however, were in agreement that the question should be put to the voters, through there was considerable debate about whether it should be in one, all-inclusive question, or three distinct questions covering each of the three aspects of the industry.
Industry representatives said they preferred the three-question approach.
Among the topics debated on Tuesday, it was noted that industry representatives have said they are as eager as anyone to keep medical marijuana out of the hands of children.
But Roaring Fork School Board member Miles Rovig said the local schools have reported 20 expulsions of students for dealing pot this year, compared to one or two in prior years. He said there also have been 50 suspensions of kids for using pot in school, compared to a fifth of that many in prior years.
He offered no proof tying the incidents to medical marijuana dispensaries, but implied that the link exists, “No matter how beneficial [medical marijuana is for patients] we’re going to have youngsters who do not have the experience … to make the decision” of whether to use pot or not, he said.
Some mentioned that if the county bans cultivation of marijuana in the unincorporated areas, that will push growing operations and “infusion” activities into the municipalities.
Several advocates argued that medical-marijuana cultivation fits into the county’s zoning categories, just as any agricultural operation does.
Commissioner John Martin declared that marijuana is different because it is used to make other products, meaning “infused” foods, and thus does not fit in the “agriculture” category. Others countered that the cultivation of corn, tomatoes or other produce are not specifically mentioned in the zoning code, either.
“We’re not recognizing marijuana growing as agriculture,” Martin stated emphatically.
The ballot questions will simply ask voters whether they want to ban or permit one or all of the three different aspects of the medical marijuana business, and leave the details of regulation up to the commissioners.
Among the issues the board will face, if the voters come out in favor of medical marijuana, will be whether to “grandfather in” operations that were in existence before the county imposed a six-month moratorium on all new medical marijuana facilities in June.
More than one operator claimed to have called the county planning department before the moratorium was announced. They said they were told that medical marijuana cultivation was considered an allowed use under agricultural zoning, set up operations based on that information, and now wanted assurances they would be allowed to continue operations.
There was no conclusive ruling on that question, although Martin said after the meeting that he felt there would be no “grandfathering in” of existing dispensaries no matter what happens with the vote.
The vote came after a hurried closed-door meeting with the county attorney. Commissioner Samson made a motion that a single question should be placed on the ballot.
But Commissioner Tresi Houpt disagreed, saying that since each aspect of the business required a different license from the state and was a different kind of land use, they should be addressed by three separate questions.
Commissioner Martin sided with Houpt, he said, for “defensibility reasons,” in the event of legal challenges from the industry.
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