Marijuana debate re-emerges in Rifle
RIFLE — Less than two years after passing a ban on retail marijuana stores and other facilities, City Council could re-evaluate the issue and join the long list of communities across Colorado currently engaged in similar discussions.
Council last week directed staff to put a marijuana-focused discussion on the agenda for its next meeting on April 20. The irony of the meeting being on April 20 or 4/20 — commonly known as the cannabis holiday — was not lost on some councilors.
The decision to invite the public for a discussion on the city’s policies came Wednesday in response to comments from two property owners who said they had been approached by marijuana businesses interested in locating in Rifle.
Kirk Swallow, owner of Swallow Oil Co., said ongoing struggles in the business have led him to explore different opportunities as a way to lease some of his properties. A knowledgeable entity that already operates several dispensaries recently approached Swallow, he said, to express interest in a possible marijuana drive-through.
He made the point that Silt and Parachute, the neighboring municipalities to the east and west of Rifle, both allow retail marijuana stores.
“I don’t think we’re going to keep it away from our community,” Swallow said. “I feel that the city will benefit from the tax revenue on it.”
Currently, Rifle has four cultivation operations, each of which has a medical license and a retail license for growing. Additionally, the city has five licensed medical dispensaries.
When Council approved its current marijuana code in 2013, it limited the number of retail cultivation licenses to the four existing medical grow operations in existence at the time — effectively setting a cap on the number of retail cultivation licenses.
In 2014, Rifle voters approved a 5 percent excise tax on retail marijuana grown in the city. An unaudited financial report from December states that the city collected $69,994 from the excise tax in 2015.
Businesses are required to have both a state and city license for marijuana operations.
Although Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division records show five state-approved retail cultivation licenses in the city, Kristy Christensen, city clerk, clarified that one of those licenses was issued for property owned by one of the operating cultivation facilities. Since the plot is still vacant and the code limits the number of licenses to four, the city has not issued the fifth retail cultivation license that the state issued.
The codes put into place then also banned retail stores, manufacturing facilities and marijuana testing facilities.
Rather than explicitly requesting Council to reverse the current ban, Swallow asked what the process for altering the current codes would look like.
Mark Sills, another local business owner who has two properties that house marijuana grows, followed Swallow’s comments by saying that he too has been approached, specifically by those hoping to establish cultivation facilities.
“That’s the only call I really get, as far as people that want to rent, is more people that want to grow,” Sills said.
Wednesday was not the first time Council has been approached about the issue — most recently Bryan Semel, an Aspen Realtor, raised the issue during public comments at City Council’s Feb. 3 meeting.
“It’s been brought to us by more than the gentlemen that are here tonight — I can tell you that,” Mayor Randy Winkler noted.
However, hearing from two local property owners was enough to open the door for further conversation.
In a note of caution, Winkler stated that Council was not taking a position on the issue, but rather inviting the public so Council could determine how, or if, to proceed.
That feedback could be crucial. In recalling the 2013 decision, Mayor Pro-Tem Barb Clifton said the complete lack of public support heavily influenced her vote.
“The one thing that I thought affected me the most was that we had no one from the community come in and actually support opening it up to recreational marijuana or expanding the grow operations, other than people who were directly in the industry,” she said. “And my personal opinion is I’m fine relooking at it, but I would really want to see some level of support from the community that that was something that they wanted.”
Other councilors, including Annick Pruett and Dana Wood, said they also want to hear from the community on the subject.
“More and more people are getting approached and a lot of things have changed in the last three years, as far as more and more people adopting that in their communities,” Wood said. “I think maybe now is a better time for the community to speak up about what they want to see … either way.”
GRAPPLING WITH EVOLVING INDUSTRY
Rifle is far from the only Colorado community debating the marijuana issue more than three years after nearly 55 percent of Colorado voters approved Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana in the state. The amendment allows cities, towns and counties to decide which businesses they will and will not allow.
The local-control provision is one of the great aspects of Amendment 64, said Kevin Bommer, deputy director of the Colorado Municipal League.
“It’s certainly not without controversy,” but local control permits conversations to unfold among neighbors, rather than come down from the Legislature, Bommer said.
Those conversations are still going on, for various reasons.
Last Tuesday, six rural municipalities voted on whether to repeal a ban or moratorium enacted in the wake of Amendment 64. Of the six, only Crestone, a small town of less than 200 people in Saguache County, reversed course.
In Parachute, the town board’s repeal of its marijuana ban last summer was the impetus for a recall effort of the mayor and two trustees. All three recalls were handily defeated Tuesday.
Elsewhere, cities and towns that already allow retail marijuana businesses are grappling with issues such as permissible locations and the number of available licenses. The Denver City Council is poised to consider a proposal that, among other things, would set caps on stores and cultivation facilities, The Denver Post reported last week. Consideration of the proposal comes as a temporary moratorium is set to expire.
In mid-March, Carbondale trustees debated the town’s marijuana regulations in response to complaints about odors from a concentration of businesses. And although marijuana has not been a recent agenda item in Silt or New Castle, marijuana-related questions were posed during candidate forums leading up to the municipal elections last Tuesday.
In terms of the big picture view, many municipalities are looking at the marijuana industry and its evolution, Bommer said, and they’re seeing that is has not yet stabilized. As the industry, the regulations guiding it and broader economic and societal factors continue moving at a rapid pace, the discussions will continue at the local level, Bommer said.
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