High Country: Roadside CDOT Censorship
Breaking down Pitkin County’s concerns over a Clean Colorado cannabis sponsorship
Earlier this month, The Aspen Times’ Jason Auslander reported on Pitkin County officials’ concern about the 10-plus Dalwhinnie Colorado Cannabis signs dotting Highway 82. County Manager Jon Peacock formalized the government’s worries in a letter to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) on Dec. 18. In it, he wrote that the county is “trying to discourage use of marijuana, tobacco, alcohol and other drugs among our youth and youth who are visiting” and argued “this appears to be a partnership that was rolled out hastily and as a result will vex local communities (I’m sure we’re not the only one complaining).”
As it turns out, Pitkin County is the only one in the state complaining, according to CDOT Northwest region communications manager Elise Thatcher.
“This is the first time a county has complained about the program,” Thatcher shared with me.
And for what it’s worth, I doubt many backseat passengers who fall into the “youth” category are paying more attention to the “Colorado Cannabis” fine print on the signage than what’s streaming on the screens of their handheld devices. I personally noticed the signs in September and promptly sent an email to Dalwhinnie, excited to learn about a new, presumably local cannabis company in our city, which to my longtime local knowledge, was the first to take up real estate along Aspen’s only state thoroughfare (a fact also confirmed by Thatcher).
Curious about what specific complaints county officials have received pertaining to the signs, I inquired with Peacock, to which he replied, “Many of the complaints have been informal and directly to board (of county commissioners) members, so we do not have an exact count. However, this has been an issue board members have been hearing about for several months, and complaints continue to roll in.”
For Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper, the subject matter is less of an issue than the size and frequency of the actual signage and the fact that Dalwhinnie hasn’t personally cleaned up its section of Highway 82 since the campaign began.
“The signs do not appear to be in compliance with CDOT’s rules and regulations for signage along state highways,” Clapper told me during a phone interview. “We never saw anybody out there putting up these new signs, they just suddenly appeared.”
Clapper added: “We only received a few (complaints) and it was a while ago … not significant numbers. The main thing is that when you drive the highway you can’t help but notice (the signs). They are just too big and in your face. The board is concerned as a whole as to if they are legal and are they (Dalwhinnie) going to clean up the highway?”
Thatcher confirmed the signs do follow program requirements. And it’s not Dalwhinnie’s responsibility to clean the road as a sign sponsor, which were bought under the Clean Colorado program — not the better-known Adopt a Highway. As such, when businesses enlist in the Clean Colorado sponsorship program, they pay a fee to cover the cost of a cleanup crew for their designated stretch of highway. It’s an increasingly popular marketing workaround for the cannabis industry, which faces a multitude of restrictions when it comes to advertising on TV, radio, billboards and social media.
Peacock says Pitkin County is still awaiting a formal response from CDOT as to how the program is being implemented and overseen.
“We have seen no evidence of cleanups. We want to know how many times sections of Highway 82 with these signs have actually been cleaned by the company receiving (Dalwhinnie’s) advertising revenues,” Peacock added. “It appears there was more responsiveness to The Aspen Times than the county. The board has requested that we pursue further scrutiny of the program.”
Commissioner Clapper agreed: “The responses that Jason reported in the newspaper are of concern to us as far as public safety. We are not letting it go at this point until we have answers to our questions.”
According to a Feb. 14 news story in the Denver Post, “Cannabis companies are the leading sponsors of Colorado highways, accounting for cleanup on two-thirds of the roads maintained by Clean Colorado — a program the industry has leveraged as a loophole in the state’s strict limits on marijuana advertising.” Currently, 50 cannabis-related businesses (including dispensaries, cultivators, manufacturers and edible producers) sponsor highway miles throughout the state, accounting for 48% (versus the 66% reported in The Denver Post, clarified by Thatcher) of all sponsored roadways part of the Clean Colorado program.
In addition to cultivating the cannabis industry’s support for its Clean Colorado initiative, CDOT is also dedicated to impaired driving awareness. The state agency, which manages more than 23,000 lane miles of highway and 3,429 bridges in Colorado, recently wrapped a Valentine’s Day “Nip It In The Bud” promotion in partnership with Lightshade dispensaries across metro Denver to give customers cannabis-themed bouquets adorned with safety messages and cards with reminders of driving laws.
The holiday effort is part of CDOT’s ongoing “Cannabis Conversation” campaign, a two-year initiative that researched cannabis driving behaviors and perspectives from more than 18,000 Coloradans. CDOT results found that dispensaries and budtenders are among the most trusted messengers when it comes to information about cannabis safety, laws and regulations.
Dalwhinnie embarked on the Clean Colorado campaign as a prelude to the grand opening of its flagship location, which will be downtown Aspen’s ninth cannabis dispensary when it opens this spring (the final step is getting approval from the Historic Preservation Commission for its nearly-finished home on the corner of Mill and Main Street).
With its cultivation operation more than three hours away in Ridgway, Dalwhinnie thought a Clean Colorado campaign was the best possible way to participate without having any staff yet on the ground in Aspen.
“Because cannabis is so regulated, I think we’re just getting extra scrutiny on top of it,” said Dalwhinnie Group chief strategy and brand officer Jenny Diggles, who recently relocated from Portland, Oregon, to Aspen proper full time. “It’s a shame to get caught in the crosshairs of this confusion between CDOT and the city, but here we are. We really were trying to do something good and support the community before we could even open officially. We were very thoughtful about where we wanted to place our brand and look at Aspen as our home. We want the community to see us as a company that cares about their community.”
Don’t worry, Dalwhinnie, there are a lot of locals that appreciate your support of keeping Highway 82 clean are ready to welcome your store with open arms.
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While the rest of the festival’s performance program was announced in the spring, the opening concert by the Festival Orchestra had remained blank.