Pitkin County leaders hazy about marijuana regulation
Special to The Aspen Times
Passage of Amendment 64 in November made marijuana legal in Colorado, but local officials still are struggling to determine exactly what that means.
On Tuesday, Pitkin County commissioners held their first official discussion about licensing the sale, cultivation, manufacturing and testing of recreational marijuana, but they hardly knew where to start.
Pitkin County Attorney John Ely framed the discussion by saying, ”Marijuana is going to be an activity that probably forever will be highly regulated,” but then added that many of the chosen regulations will be enacted at the local level. In other words, it’s up to the Board of County Commissioners if, how and how much to regulate the commercial cultivation and sale of pot within their borders.
“There is great deference given to local governments,” Ely said. “We really can do a great number of things to effect whatever it is the board wants to accomplish.”
It wasn’t readily apparent what the board wanted to do. No commissioners expressed any anti-marijuana sentiments, but nobody expressed a wish to simply open the barn doors, either.
Commissioners Rachel Richards and Rob Ittner both mentioned that recreational marijuana sales, growth and consumption could pose a nuisance to neighboring businesses or homeowners, mainly because of the smell. Ittner said he’s personally glad that Amendment 64 passed but, added “I know retailers who have moved their establishments because of this.” He also wondered aloud if the county ought to prohibit or restrict the location of marijuana businesses near schools.
Commissioner Steve Child was the only member of the board to articulate an overall vision for marijuana laws in the future.
“My personal feeling is that cannabis should be legalized in the whole U.S. and taxed and regulated just like alcohol production is,” Child said. “It only makes sense to do it that way.”
As a rancher, Child also added that he sees pot as an agricultural commodity, one with a higher value than the hay grown around the Roaring Fork Valley. Child recalled baling hay one time and thinking to himself, “Wow, if this was marijuana, we’d really be rich.”
Of course, any Pitkin County pot likely would be grown in greenhouses, and that prompted other commissioners to wonder about the land-use implications of large, enclosed, pot-growing structures.
“Size is an issue— and perhaps location,” said Commissioner George Newman.
Lance Clarke, assistant director of community development, told commissioners that the existing medical marijuana-related greenhouses in the county have been 2,000 feet or smaller, but “we expect that to expand” as the recreational marijuana industry develops.
Overall, commissioners expressed more concerns about the licensing and land-use impacts of marijuana cultivation than they did about retail sales. Already, the unincorporated county has few commercial centers — commissioners mentioned Basalt, Old Snowmass, Aspen Village, Woody Creek and the Aspen Business Center — so most retail-license applications likely would flow to the municipalities of Aspen, Snowmass Village or Basalt.
Trying to summarize the discussion, Ely said. “The retail-licensing discussion, I sense, will be somewhat easier. … The cultivation discussion will be broader because of the implications of the use of greenhouses.”
For an initial sense of public sentiment across the county, commissioners agreed that they should reach out to neighborhood caucuses in places like Old Snowmass, the Fryingpan Valley, Woody Creek and the Crystal Valley to find out how those organizations feel about marijuana stores or growing operations in their areas.
Beyond that outreach, it’s unclear where the commissioners might go. Hanging over the entire discussion is the uncomfortable reality that, while recreational marijuana has been legalized in Colorado, it’s still illegal in the eyes of the federal government.
Under Amendment 64, Colorado local governments should be ready to receive applications for recreational marijuana business licenses by Oct. 1. At first, only licensed medical marijuana dispensaries or those with license applications in good standing will be able to apply for the recreational marijuana licenses, and none of those licenses will be issued before Jan. 1. New entrants into the marketplace may not apply for licenses until July 1, and no licenses will be issued on those applications till Oct. 1, 2014.
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