Recreational pot sales in Rifle debated by city council
Citizen Telegram Editor
Whether or not the City of Rifle will allow existing medical marijuana businesses to convert to recreational marijuana sales has begun to be discussed by the city council, with some members wanting more information before making a decision, another sought a quick straw vote after a Sept. 18 workshop and meeting.
The issue has become a detailed, lengthy debate at municipal and county government levels across Colorado, after state voters approved Amendment 64 in last year’s general election. The amendment made it legal – under state law – for adults to possess and use up to one ounce of marijuana in their homes. It also gave local governments the option of banning or allowing marijuana cultivation facilities, product manufacturing facilities, testing facilities or retail marijuana stores by ordinance. If allowed, they could operate under local or state regulations. Local voters can also be asked to decide the issue in the November 2014 general election.
Rifle officials waited until after the Sept. 10 municipal election before taking up the matter. The previous city council enacted a moratorium on local applications from current medical marijuana businesses to convert to retail sales until Nov. 6.
Officials, citizens voice concerns
At the workshop, Rifle Police Chief John Dyer said marijuana, just like alcohol, is one of the leading causes of crime.
“I have a real concern if we allow recreational sales of marijuana in Rifle,” Dyer said.
He cited the 15 recent drug-related arrests by the Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team in the Rifle area, and noted those arrested had around 70 non-drug related arrests.
“And that followed the April arrests of other people involved in a large drug operation base in Rifle,” Dyer said. “I think this all shows drugs have a very negative impact on this community.”
Dyer also said that in his 30 years of law enforcement experience, “there will be increased use if you make drugs more accessible and acceptable, with the perception of a decreased risk.”
“Tobacco is a good example of the opposite of that,” Dyer added. “It’s been made less accessible or available, and the perceived risk is up, so tobacco use is down.”
Dyer said if recreational marijuana businesses are allowed downtown – where four of the five medical marijuana businesses now operate – it will send the message that marijuana use is more acceptable.
Another concern Dyer voiced was what he called “inadequate regulatory control” of medical marijuana businesses by state authorities. A recent state audit found a list of problems by state regulators, and predicted recreational sales of marijuana would likely cost more to regulate than fees and/or taxes on marijuana would generate, Dyer added.
While Dyer agreed marijuana is less dangerous that other drugs, “it’s not without its own negative affects.”
“Rifle faces an active drug subculture of children and adults,” Dyer said. “That has real and negative impacts to this community.”
Dyer noted Carbondale and Glenwood Springs will allow recreational marijuana businesses, Palisade, Fruita, New Castle and Silt all have moratoriums in place and are expected to ask their town voters to decide the issue next year, while Parachute, Grand Junction and Mesa County have all banned recreational marijuana businesses.
Mike Samson, a Garfield County commissioner who said he spoke as a Rifle resident, urged the council to ban recreational sales.
“This is a no-brainer,” Samson said. “You don’t have to spend a lot of time and energy to know this is something you know is not good for the citizens of Rifle. I’ve always thought the move by the medical marijuana backers was a guise to move to recreational sales. That’s not good for our young people or anyone else.”
Later, during the public comments portion of the council meeting, Rifle School Resource Officer Dustin Marantino said at one point, he favored marijuana legalization.
“That view shifted when I saw how kids and families are affected by drugs,” Marantino said. “I’m frustrated at Colorado at this point. When our first medical marijuana business opened, I saw a definite surge in the use of marijuana by kids.”
Marantino added that as a father, he is concerned about raising his son in a community that may allow recreational sales of marijuana.
“We already have the stigma of being the only place on I-70 from the Utah state line to Glenwood Springs where medical marijuana is available,” he said. “I have a real fear for our community and the kids in our community.”
Still illegal under federal law
In the workshop, Councilman Dirk Myers said despite a recent ruling from the U.S. Justice Department that said federal authorities would not enforce federal laws against recreational marijuana in Colorado or Washington, he still had problems with that possibility.
“They’re saying they won’t enforce their own laws and that, to me, is a violation of federal laws,” Myers said. “So I don’t believe the federal government has given 100 percent clearance to this, and there’s still some liability for us.”
City Attorney Jim Neu agreed and noted the ruling had “plenty of escape hatches” for the federal government to still enforce its laws, if the two states do not adequately regulate and enforce the industry.
Councilman Jonathan Rice said he found it “ironic” the federal government would make a public policy that said they would not enforce this set of federal laws.
“Then, in the next breath, they tell Colorado and Washington that ‘you better enforce your state laws or change the federal law’,” Rice added. “I think that’s a clear violation of federal law. Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution clearly says federal law trumps state law.”
Rice also said state voters were “wrong” to have passed Amendment 64. Rifle voters opposed the amendment by nine votes.
“As a government teacher, I try to teach my students that we have a good system, with structure and purpose, that democracy works,” he continued. “We can’t give the green light to the sale of marijuana in violation of federal law, despite what this ruling says. We’re destroying the system of government and once rules have no meaning, we’re in chaos.”
Mayor Randy Winkler said his research found Amsterdam, which has had a much more tolerant attitude about drug use for at least three decades, had a much lower rate of drug use by those 17 years of age and younger than the U.S.
Dyer responded that many other cultures also allow youngsters to drink alcohol, and that comparing the U.S. to Amsterdam was like comparing apples to oranges.
Winkler added Seattle, Wash., police officials had recently decided to make marijuana enforcement a low priority, then had their lowest crime rate in 40 years.
“I’m not sure what caused that, but the crime rate did drop after they said that,” Winkler added.
Pot business owners voice concerns
Dan Sullivan, owner of Green Medicine Wellness medical marijuana dispensaries in Rifle and Glenwood Springs, said he had not profited from either operation and agreed state regulators had done a “terrible” job of regulating medical marijuana businesses.
“Rifle has done an outstanding job of outlining your regulations,” he added. “I also want to say that we are good guys in this community. We also have a [medical marijuana cultivation operation] in Rifle, but we desperately need growth.”
Sullivan said Green Medicine Wellness had invested “several hundred thousand dollars” into the cultivation operation and needs to be able to sell its product for recreational use.
Dan England, owner of the Green Cross Colorado medical marijuana cultivation operation off I-70 in Rifle, said his company manufactures medical marijuana “infused” products and distributes them in Denver and elsewhere in Colorado. England said it was important he and other medical marijuana operators know where Rifle stands on recreational sales.
“Every day after Jan. 1 [when recreational businesses can open in Colorado] that another manufacturer is operating and we aren’t is a day we lose on our investment,” he said.
During the individual council member comments at the end of the regular meeting, after all the business owners and others had left, Rice proposed the council take a “straw vote” to give direction to city staff on whether to start preparing regulations for recreational sales and to help the medical marijuana businesses know where Rifle might be headed.
“I think it would be unfair for us to say yes or no now, which is what we would be doing,” Councilman Hans Parkinson said in response. “In fairness to the people who were here to be heard, I don’t think we can do this.”
No straw vote was taken and another work session was later scheduled for 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 2, in city hall.
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