New Garfield County pot-growing regs no guarantee

John Stroud
Post Independent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Medical marijuana growing operations in Garfield County that supply dispensaries outside the county could be grandfathered in under new regulations adopted by county commissioners on Monday.

But no guarantees.

The Garfield Board of County Commissioners voted 3-0 to approve new land-use code provisions for so-called Optional Premises Cultivation Operations (OPCOs) related to the growing of medical marijuana.

Such facilities will be allowed in the county’s commercial and industrial zone districts, subject to a limited impact review before the county commissioners.

The regulations establish a 1,000-foot buffer zone between growing facilities and schools, child day-care centers, churches, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, parks and other public facilities.

Also under the new rules is a controversial provision that will prohibit growing operations in Garfield County from selling or supplying their product outside the county.

That is of particular concern to a handful of existing operations in Garfield County that supply retail dispensaries and manufacturing facilities in neighboring Pitkin County.

“I’m wondering if I need to be giving fair warning to my employees that they may not have a job in a couple of weeks?” Pete Tramm, one of the affected medical marijuana business owners, asked of the commissioners.

Under the county’s provisions for nonconforming land uses to be grandfathered in, those operations could be allowed to continue on a case-by-case basis. But they could also be asked by the commissioners to conform to the new rules at any time.

“You would be wiping away hundreds of thousands of dollars that these businesses have invested in Garfield County,” said Lauren Maytin, an Aspen attorney who represents several growers, dispensary owners and medical marijuana patients in the area.

State law allows growing operations that are associated with the dispensary to sell 30 percent of their product to other dispensaries. It’s a way to ensure certain types of strains are available to patients who may not be able to find what they want at their local dispensary, Maytin said, or as a backup in case a crop fails.

“This restriction will eviscerate that ability, which is allowed under state law,” Maytin said. “I don’t think it’s fair to your constituents to do that.”

Garfield County’s regulations come in follow-up to a 2010 election when county voters decided which types of medical marijuana operations would be allowed in unincorporated areas, in accordance with state law.

Voters rejected retail medical marijuana centers, or dispensaries, as well as the manufacturing of marijuana-infused products. However, voters decided to permit the cultivation of medical marijuana.

County commissioners in July 2010 placed a moratorium on new medical marijuana facilities and have kept it in place until the new local regulations for growing operations could be adopted.

That moratorium is slated to be lifted on July 1, at the same time as a statewide moratorium will also expire.

“We have struggled with this, and we will continue to struggle with this,” Commissioner Mike Samson said of the regulations. He has expressed reservations about the legitimacy of medical marijuana.

Samson noted that existing businesses were put on notice “from day one” that any new regulations the county put in place could affect their operations.

“This is a very difficult decision, because we have never had to deal with anything like this before,” he said. “I still fight with how serious this business really is. I don’t like it being in Garfield County, but the voters voted to allow it, so it’s our job to control it and make sure it isn’t abused.”

Commission Chairman John Martin went along with the regulations, even though he believes medical marijuana should be regulated by the medical industry and the federal government, not state and local government.

“This does not belong in a land-use review, in my opinion,” Martin said.

Commissioners on Monday also established the county Clerk and Recorder’s Office as the local licensing authority for medical marijuana operations. Businesses must also be licensed by the state.

Colorado voters in 2001 legalized medical marijuana through a constitutional amendment. In 2010, House Bill 1284 gave local governments the authority to regulate the growing and sale of the substance through zoning and licensing programs.