Some call him the voice of reason, while others call him plain unreasonable.
As a Pitkin County commissioner, George Newman is expected to voice his opinions and vote on issues with his constituents in mind, no matter what people call him.
One of the biggest issues the county has faced in recent times is putting together rules and regulations concerning the growing, selling, manufacturing and testing of marijuana for recreational use.
Throughout the process, Newman has stood strong as the lone voice urging a slow, cautious approach to implementing recreational-use marijuana in Pitkin County.
When it comes to voting on the regulations, Newman has been the consistent “no” vote, which isn’t popular with many who want to see recreational marijuana as soon as possible.
He’s voted against approving every regulation so far.
“My whole approach to retail marijuana really isn’t per se a very prudent or conservative point of view,” Newman said. “It’s more in terms of what I believe is our charge as an elected official for the community, which to me is to protect and enhance the health, safety and welfare of our citizens.”
Tall with a rigid posture, Newman has the piercing eyes of a teacher. His quiet tone and rhythm often require extra attention to make sure he’s heard. When he speaks, he doesn’t have the loud, engaging swagger of a politician but more the comfortable pace of a calm one-on-one conversation.
Newman, 61, grew up outside New York City where marijuana was, in his words, an unknown entity. His first exposure to marijuana came when he attended the University of New Hampshire and the University of Colorado at Denver, where he earned his master’s degree in public administration.
But that was nothing compared with the pot culture he experienced when he came to Aspen in the early 1970s.
“Aspen was a great party town and still is,” Newman said. “Back in the early ’70s, pot was prevalent, and the local law enforcement took a laissez-faire approach to it. I don’t know if you can say it was acceptable, but it was Aspen, and it was all about drugs, rock ’n’ roll and, of course, skiing. The music scene was tremendous back then, and it just sort of went along with that culture.”
Newman said he was also part of that culture and smoked pot when he was younger.
“Of course,” he said. “Who didn’t?”
Add 40 years to the calendar, and the whole Aspen scene hasn’t changed that much. It’s still considered a party town, and marijuana is still here, albeit much more visible with the addition of medical marijuana outlets.
Newman is well aware that the state of Colorado and the people of Pitkin County voted for the legalization of marijuana, which in his opinion is fine. His take is that the vote was more for the understanding that marijuana should be decriminalized, that the war on drugs wasn’t working and that imprisoning people for smoking a joint wasn’t the right answer.
“I don’t believe the citizens voted to also allow cultivation farms to crop up adjacent to their homes and properties,” he said. “It’s more a land-use issue, as much as anything, for me.”
That is why he respects the voices of the caucuses he represents, which are Emma, the upper Fryingpan Valley and the Crystal River. He hears their concerns, to not have to worry about crime and theft in their neighborhoods, especially in rural Pitkin County, where the presence of law enforcement isn’t readily available.
Many residents in the upper Fryingpan Valley have issues concerning marijuana-growing operations coming into their neighborhoods. Jan Strobeck is the treasurer for the upper Fryingpan Valley caucus and has heard many caucus participants voice their concerns.
“We’re glad to hear that George has stood up for us,” Strobeck said. “He always seems to have our best interests at heart. A lot of people here wonder if growing marijuana will attract some undesirable folks. When it takes law enforcement 45 minutes to reach this area, we do have safety concerns. He’s really an honest and caring individual.”
Margaret Simmons, chairwoman for the Emma caucus, said Newman is doing a superb job representing the Emma community. She said many Emma residents have voiced concerns over marijuana grow operations coming into their community.
“We know we’re not going to stop these operations,” Simmons said. “But we appreciate George’s wanting to be cautious about moving forward with the new regulations. That’s exactly what we asked him to be.”
Newman is also a former chairman for the Emma caucus and feels the voices from every caucus are equally important. One of the areas that differentiate Pitkin County from other Colorado counties is recognizing the structure of neighborhood caucuses.
Each caucus has its own master plan, which is adopted by the county Planning and Zoning Department, and speaks to each individual neighborhood in terms of how it wants to see its land use applied.
Cultivation farms for marijuana are becoming a huge issue for the three caucuses Newman represents. Newman said all the commissioners take the recommendations from caucuses seriously and was glad to hear the direction the board is going. The commissioners are currently considering applying the wishes of the caucuses for a year or more and then reconsidering any positions.
“The issues around retail marijuana are so new,” Newman said. “So much of what happens is going to be trial and error, and we’ll learn as we go along. I think it’s even more important that we respect the caucuses’ wishes to either opt out from allowing any retail licenses within their areas or having a temporary ban to see how some of these issues play out.”