Pitkin County ponders places for marijuana

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – The Pitkin County manager should be responsible for issuing licenses to medical marijuana operations, a slim majority of county commissioners agreed Tuesday, but where such businesses should be allowed was a matter of concern.

Commissioners are reviewing proposed local licensing regulations after state officials indicated a local license is necessary in order for an operation to be licensed by the state. The county’s goal is formal adoption in June, before the state moratorium on new applications expires July 1.

While Commissioners Michael Owsley and George Newman advocated having the Board of County Commissioners issue licenses, the majority agreed that the task should rest with the county manager. A license will be issued if the application conforms with state regulations and the locale of the business conforms with county zoning, explained County Manager Jon Peacock.

“I would suggest that we (the board) do the licensing,” Owsley said. “The question that’s raised by the public is going to come to us: Why is there a medical marijuana facility in my neighborhood?”

But Commissioners Rachel Richards and Jack Hatfield suggested that it’s the policy issues surrounding medical marijuana that belong under the board’s purview, not the perfunctory issuing of a license when an application complies with regulations. Commissioner Rob Ittner agreed.

“I don’t know that I want to politicize a decision every time a license comes through,” Richards said.

A public hearing would be held for renewal of a license under the county’s proposed regulations if there are complaints that an operation has failed to comply with state law or the conditions of the county license or if the business has operated in a way that adversely affects the health, welfare or safety of a neighborhood.

At present, county officials believe there are three medical marijuana dispensaries operating in unincorporated Pitkin County, including two at the Aspen Business Center and one in Holland Hills, plus roughly a half-dozen grow sites. That tally is based on the number of businesses that stepped forward when the state required them to submit a license application in 2010 and does not include businesses operating within municipalities, such as the city of Aspen.

Commissioners came to no decision Tuesday on whether zoning regulations need to be amended to exclude the businesses from certain areas. Residents in Redstone, for example, have indicated they don’t want one of the businesses to open there, but existing zoning would permit a such an establishment. In other areas, neighborhood caucuses have indicated they don’t want the medical marijuana industry operating within their borders, Newman noted.

Owsley suggested staffers map out what would be allowed in what areas of the county as a next step.

Commissioners also raised questions about liability related to the medical marijuana industry, as the operations are allowed under state law even though federal law continues to prohibit possession and sale of the product.

The county’s liability insurer has not made a determination on coverage, given the evolving nature of the industry, according to county attorney John Ely, who termed the county’s liability risk “slight.”

Ittner questioned whether the businesses themselves carry liability insurance and whether the county could be covered by such a policy. Ely said he would check.

Also in the county’s proposed regulations is a requirement that medical marijuana businesses not be within 1,000 feet of a licensed child-care facility or school below college level, and that they not be located within a multi-family residential building.

Some businesses – the making of marijuana-infused products, for example – would be allowed under the county’s home-occupation zoning.