The Aspen Times Editorial: Cap on Aspen marijuana shops doesn’t smell right

It is indisputable that there is plenty of legal marijuana to go around in Aspen, and plenty of shops that sell it, too.

But we implore city leaders to back off the idea, one floated by Mayor Steve Skadron, of restricting the number of pot shops in town.

At first whiff, Skadron appears to creating a problem that doesn’t exist.

Last week at a City Council work session, the mayor offered that the downtown’s so-called proliferation of cannabis dispensaries — eight are retail, five medicinal — could be tainting the Aspen “brand.”

To which brand Skadron was referring is unclear. Is it the “one of the fittest cities in America” brand? The Aspen brand known for its opulence, affluence and decadence? Or the brand aligned with the late maverick writer Hunter S. Thompson?

Whatever the case, we struggle to compute Skadron’s concerns, which are shared by many. And that is that the number of downtown pot shops is fueling an image many don’t want the town to be associated with — Aspen, the stoner haven.

Skadron took it a step further and argued that because landlords are charging cannabis stores higher rents than other tenants, the commercial real estate market is squeezing out other retailers that provide services and goods that locals need.

The mayor’s arguments, well-intended as they are, fall well short of justifying legislation limiting Aspen’s number of cannabis shops. It’s also obvious why the proprietors of pot stores would support this — the less competition, the better for their business.

But such restrictions could set an unwelcome precedent in Aspen. Other businesses facing competition — bars, restaurants, T-shirt shops, liquor stores, ski shops, you name it — also could lobby for restrictions on their industries.

A cap on pot shops also would go against the will of the voters who passed Colorado Amendment 64 in 2012. In Pitkin County, 7,303 voters, or 75.4 percent, favored legalizing marijuana in the state.

We also are troubled by Skadron’s notion that cannabis dispensaries send a bad message. This type of thinking is what has stigmatized a plant that has shown medical benefits and accounts for a mere fraction of the calls the Aspen Police Department handles, something Police Chief Richard Pryor even recognized. The chief source of complaints typically are alcohol-related, Pryor said.

Proponents of the limit on pot shops also contend the highly visible stores send the wrong message to youth. We disagree. The responsibility of educating youth about the woes of marijuana — and it does have detrimental effects on youth and habitual users — falls with the parents. And cannabis dispensaries, to their credit, have on-site, educational pamphlets produced by the Valley Marijuana Council explaining the effects of the drug.

Meanwhile, the city has issued tavern licenses to two retailers in Aspen, allowing them to serve alcohol to customers, while roughly a dozen art galleries have special permits to serve complimentary wine 15 days a year, according to the City Clerk’s Office. Events serving alcohol on city property also is routine, with the wildly popular Food & Wine Classic two weeks away.

At the same time, the city will be begin public lease negotiations Tuesday with the Aspen Power Plant group to use the civic space at 590 N. Mill St. One of the tenants would be a for-profit restaurant that would serve alcohol from a space traditionally occupied by nonprofits and government services.

To be sure, the city can’t have it both ways. We implore the City Council to let the market sort out Aspen’s marijuana-shop industry. Doing otherwise would smack of a double standard while ripping a page from the playbook of fear mongers who ignorantly demonize the plant and its users.

The Aspen Times editorial board consists of Publisher Samantha Johnston, Editor Lauren Glendenning, Managing Editor Rick Carroll and community members Bob Braudis and Kathryn Koch.