COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — This bastion of conservative, traditional values is home to the Christian ministry Focus on the Family, megachurch New Life Church and the U.S. Air Force Academy. Army and Air Force bases ring the city.
But it’s also the home of 85 medical marijuana dispensaries and a mecca for parents seeking a locally developed strain of marijuana to treat their children’s seizures. What’s more, city voters endorsed full state legalization of pot.
So when it came time for the state’s second-largest city to decide whether to jump on the bandwagon of recreational marijuana, the Colorado Springs City Council was divided.
It voted, 5-4, to ban growers and sellers — the same choice made by most of the Colorado cities and counties that have passed local laws since legalization. Local resistance could scatter Colorado’s legal marijuana sales to a series of isolated islands.
With Pierce County and other jurisdictions also banning sales, the same could happen in Washington.
Some in Colorado Springs worried that embracing the industry would threaten local military bases. Soldiers at Fort Carson and airmen at the other nearby bases, after all, are forbidden from using illegal drugs.
“When the troops go out the front door,” said City Councilman Andres “Andy” Pico, who backed the ban, “what is illegal for them is legal every place else.”
Colorado’s 2012 pot legalization measure, Amendment 64, requires businesses to obtain both state and local licenses before opening.
There is no similar requirement in Washington’s Initiative 502. The law doesn’t spell out that cities and counties can ban marijuana sales. But the state attorney general says they can, and many local governments around the state are turning the industry away. Lawsuits challenging those restrictions are expected.
Eight of the 10 biggest Colorado cities, including Colorado Springs, have either a ban or a moratorium. So do most counties, including the one that contains Colorado Springs, El Paso County.
Customers without a medical card have to go north to the Denver area or south to Pueblo County for their weed. But that may soon change.
At the foot of the mountains west of Colorado Springs, past an iron foundry that in February sent steam billowing into the freezing air, is the town of Manitou Springs.
A liberal enclave in a conservative region, the town has a population of 5,172.
A tiny one-floor city hall with a Spanish-style tile roof seems even smaller with its back reception room damaged by floods last summer and closed.
Manitou Springs, it’s clear, could use some extra cash. Soon it could have a lock on local revenue from recreational marijuana sales.
“We’re the only jurisdiction in the Pikes Peak region that has moved forward with allowing licensing of regulated retail,” Mayor Marc Snyder said.
One city’s ban, it seems, is another’s opportunity.
There won’t be a marijuana store on every corner, though. The city has capped the number of potential retailers at two, the same number of medical marijuana licenses that had already existed in Manitou (pronounced Man-ih-TOO).
“Those stores are going to do phenomenal business,” said the president of neighboring Colorado Springs’ city council, Keith King, “because they are going to be inundated with people (from) all throughout the Pikes Peak region.”
Snyder said the city is projecting $170,000 a year in tax revenue from the two stores, in a general-fund budget of $4.3 million. But he figures the revenue could be greater.
The mayor isn’t counting on a revenue bonanza, though, any more than he thinks it will drive tourists away.
“I don’t believe these predictions of doom and gloom, and I don’t believe these predictions of untold riches,” Snyder said.
A group opposed to the sales, Snyder said, is trying to place a ban on the city’s November ballot.
In Colorado Springs, activists are pushing the other way: to overturn the ban.
“The City Council decided they know better than the voters,” Mark Slaugh said.
City voters narrowly approved Amendment 64, which prevailed by nearly 5,000 votes out of more than 200,000 cast.
Slaugh is the CEO of a regulatory compliance firm for marijuana businesses, iComply. He and other advocates are trying to persuade the council to refer the decision to the ballot.
Pico, a Republican as are most members of the officially nonpartisan council, draws on his background for this decision. He’s a retired Naval flight officer and former defense contractor. In both roles, he said, he worked to support counter-drug operations.
“We’ve got a very high defense component here in our local economy,” Pico said, “and that makes it very difficult for that particular part of our economy to operate when you’ve got recreational marijuana, which is still federally illegal.”
The Pentagon doesn’t seem to share the worries about coexisting. A Department of Defense spokesman, Air Force Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, said local laws don’t change how military rules are interpreted.
“It’s the same example as if service members were stationed overseas. Drinking ages are different. Some countries permit the use of marijuana or other drugs,” Crosson said.
“It’s not a ‘when in Rome.’”
Soldiers and airmen are subject to drug tests.
Crosson said he’s heard no one say marijuana laws would make a difference in decisions on siting facilities.
Pico said he’s taking no chances, given that some future round of base closings might pit the area against some other place where marijuana remains illegal.
Slaugh doesn’t buy the military argument.
“We can trust the soldiers with hand grenades and bazookas and machine guns,” he said, “but you can’t trust them to stay out of a store?”
DISPENSARIES BLAZED TRAIL
The city of 430,000 already has dozens of places to buy marijuana legally, but only for patients with a “red card” showing they are in a medical registry.
In fact, the Colorado Springs area has gained national attention as a magnet for families of sick children seeking treatment with marijuana.
It’s due to a strain of marijuana called Charlotte’s Web after a young girl with Dravet syndrome, Charlotte Figi, who suffered from almost constant uncontrolled seizures, hundreds of them a week.
Oil extracted from the marijuana nearly eliminated Charlotte’s seizures, according to the family’s testimonials, released by a foundation that has provided the family with the drug and in news reports such as a television special from CNN’s Sanjay Gupta. The strain is high in cannabidiol, a compound seen as having medical benefits, and low in the THC that produces a high.
Charlotte’s Web is grown by cultivators for a store called Indispensary. Inside, a state license is displayed prominently on the wall and products have inventory tracking tags, just like in a recreational store. Unlike in Washington, medical dispensaries in Colorado are licensed and regulated by the state.
The Colorado Springs council agreed to allow medical stores, although most of the council has turned over since then.
“We’ve had really good success with medical marijuana,” said Councilwoman Jan Martin, one member who remains from that time. “In spite of the fears of the community, the concerns, I thought it was handled really well.”
City revenue from the taxes and license fees paid by the dispensaries has steadily climbed, to more than $1.7 million for the first 11 months of 2013.
Martin, who opposed the ban on recreational businesses, said reversing course and allowing the industry could boost city coffers by a similar amount.
Pico isn’t convinced by the revenue predictions. He said the recreational market would largely just displace the medical market, which he views as mostly for recreational users anyway.
“It’s essentially a scam,” said Pico, who joined the council after it allowed medical stores. “I mean, it’s a handful of doctors writing 90 percent of the prescriptions out there. People who are perfectly fine get a red card.”
Watching local bans from the state capital, advocates for legalization take the long view.
The activists built local control into the amendment.
“The places that have not, I have no doubt will likely move toward (allowing businesses) over time,” said Mason Tvert, a co-chairman of the 2012 campaign, “much like there are far fewer dry counties than there were a long time ago.”