Legal pot sales: Aspen fiddles while Denver burns
January 7, 2014
Editor's note: "Bringing It Home" runs Saturdays in The Aspen Times and focuses on state, national or international issues that have ties to or impacts on the Roaring Fork Valley.
All over Aspen, the questions from tourists and locals have been the same.
"Where's the pot?"
"If marijuana is legal, why can't I go into a store and buy some now?"
There are numerous reasons as to why none of the medical marijuana shops in Aspen — and across the Roaring Fork Valley, for that matter — is yet licensed to sell the recreational product. Essentially, it boils down to red tape, and also the desire on behalf of local governments and many cannabis purveyors to proceed safely and cautiously with the state's newest retail industry.
It could be early February, or perhaps later, before the first recreational pot shop is open in Aspen, local sources say. The city's Local Licensing Authority meets Tuesday to decide on the lone application for a "retail marijuana store license," submitted by Jordan Lewis, managing partner of Silverpeak Apothecary at 520 E. Cooper Ave.
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Three other applications before the Aspen licensing board only are asking for approval of a "medical-marijuana center license," which is considered a step along the process of seeking a recreational sales license. The companies behind those three applications, like Lewis, already have state-issued medical marijuana sales licenses. The requirement that state medical pot vendors apply for a city license is a new municipal regulation.
Even if the city licensing entity approves Silverpeak's request for a recreational-retail license next week, Lewis still faces other regulatory hurdles in his quest to complement his existing medical marijuana sales operation.
Such explanations didn't sit too well with Eric Jolson, 23, of Houston, on Thursday afternoon.
As he was walking around in the Hyman Avenue pedestrian mall, he carefully pulled aside strangers who looked like locals and asked them where he could buy "some legal bud."
"You would think that Aspen would have been one of the first places to sell it," he said. "My friends in Denver say there are several shops already open over there. I always thought Aspen was about the most pot-friendly town in the state. I didn't come here to ski; I came here to burn and take in the views and listen to music and drink a few beers and have a good time."
Frustrated, Jolson said he would check out a tip on a black-market source and then made his way down the mall toward his secret destination.
Indeed, other parts of the state are ahead of Aspen's curve. According to a Denver Post story Wednesday, at least 37 stores across the state were fully licensed and open to sell marijuana to anyone 21 or older for any purpose. Colorado's new laws legalizing pot sales — made possible by successful passage of the 2012 statewide constitutional Amendment 64 — allow state residents to buy as much as 1 ounce and out-of-state residents to purchase a quarter-ounce of marijuana, beginning Jan. 1, from stores that have garnered the necessary approvals.
Of the 37 stores reported to be open as of Wednesday, 17 are in Denver. The rest are scattered around the state in places like Central City, Frisco, Telluride, Idaho Springs and Pueblo, the Post story said.
State law is set up to give medical marijuana retail operators first crack at recreational sales. But they must have a new state license before they can file for a local application to go the recreational route.
Complicating the desire of some medical marijuana stores to move into the recreational market is the maze of local government regulation. Municipalities and counties worked during late summer and fall to craft their own rules after the Colorado General Assembly passed a set of laws early in the year to govern the overall industry. It was a long waiting game because even though the state lawmakers had finished their work in the spring, local governments had to wait for the state Department of Revenue, the agency with oversight of the industry, to outline more regulatory details.
Lewis, who already has secured his state license (conditional upon local approval), said that he would like to open sooner rather than later, but he doesn't envision it happening until next month at the earliest. Even if the Local Licensing Authority approves his application Tuesday, which would technically allow him to open immediately, he doesn't think he will have enough inventory to keep the shop open for long.
That's because the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners has yet to allow him to use his medical pot-growing operation near Redstone to supply a recreational store, he said. He could take advantage of a rule that would allow him (one time only) to convert his medical product into recreational sales, but he would run out quickly, leaving his medical customers without supply, he said.
"That would be gone pretty quick, and we would have to shut our doors again," Lewis said. "We only get a one-time conversion for both inventory and plants. From a business point of view, it doesn't make any sense. We really need to get the retail license for our farm approved for it to make sense for us to open for retail."
State law requires that recreational sellers produce 70 percent of the products they offer.
"When our farms get licensed by the county, we'll be fine," Lewis said. "I know they want to do this right and they don't want to rush it. But at the same time, they could say, 'Let's just let these guys get into business temporarily.' Every day that we're not able to sell, it's a big hit for us financially. It would be great if they could find a way to make it happen."
At his medical marijuana store on Thursday, would-be customers were dropping by every few minutes, wanting to purchase either cannabis buds for smoking or THC-infused edible candies. Those lacking a state-issued medical marijuana card had to be turned away with a vague promise that the recreational outlet might open in February.
"We have about 100 people a day walking through and asking us when we will open and maybe another 100 calling or emailing us," Lewis said. "I realize this is new and everyone is approaching this cautiously, but the reality is that nothing's going to change. No neighbors have complained. We have letters of support from them. The only difference is that one plant is going to have a tag that says 'retail' instead of 'medical.'
"People are excited about this, and it's such a letdown not to seize the opportunity."
Tuesday's Local Licensing Authority meeting will be held at 9 a.m. at Aspen City Hall at 130 S. Galena St.