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Town imposes new marijuana moratorium

The Town of Pagosa Springs extended a moratorium on medical marijuana centers until July 1, 2011, due to a decision by the Pagosa Springs Town Council during last Thursday’s mid-month meeting.

Only council member Stan Holt voted against the decision, stating during discussions that he favored a complete ban on medical marijuana centers.

In a presentation to council, Town Planner James Dickhoff stated that there were four options for council to consider: banning medical marijuana centers by council vote, allowing medical marijuana by council vote, extending the town’s existing moratorium on medical marijuana centers until July 1, 2011, or putting the issue to town voters.

Council first imposed a moratorium on medical marijuana centers last October after an often contentious dialog between council members and medical marijuana proponents.

Medical marijuana came to the forefront of Colorado municipalities’ concern when, late last year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made it clear that the Justice Department would not prosecute medical marijuana users or providers, as opposed to the policy of the previous administration. Within weeks of the Obama administration’s revised stance, medical marijuana providers began flooding Colorado municipalities with requests for business licenses.

In the November 2000 general election, Coloradans passed Amendment 20 which legalized marijuana for medical use.

As federal prosecutors pursued other priorities last year, municipalities choosing to allow medical marijuana centers were faced with numerous issues regarding the licensing, regulation and taxation of those businesses. Likewise, Pagosa Springs was faced with such a dilemma.

Section 6.1.7 of the town’s municipal code states, “The Licensing Officer shall approve an application and issue a license unless he or she determines that the business to be operated would violate the laws of the United States, the State of Colorado, or the Town ...”

Although legal for medical use in Colorado, marijuana, for any purpose, remains illegal at the federal level — a point raised numerous times throughout the past year as council has grappled with how to address medical marijuana centers.

Last March, council voted to extend its moratorium for another 90 days. On that Thursday, that moratorium was extended a little less than a year, to stay in concert with Colorado House Bill 1284, passed earlier this summer.

HB 1284 allows municipalities to ban or further restrict medical marijuana centers (the bill also changed the language of “dispensaries” to “centers”) beyond state regulations. However, since most provisions of HB 1284 will not go into effect until July 1, 2011 (including those granting municipalities broader oversight of medical marijuana centers) council opted to continue its moratorium until that date.

In opening his presentation, Dickhoff noted that municipalities that had already elected to allow medical marijuana centers had zoned those centers front-and-center in order to keep close tabs on the businesses. Citing Cortez as an example, Dickhoff stated that the centers appeared to have a deleterious effect on that town’s tourism business. It was that anecdote that Holt fixed on as justification for banning medical marijuana in the town.

“I don’t think it’s something our tourists want to see; we’re a family-friendly town,” Holt said. “I see no practical reason other than sales tax.”

Council member Shari Pierce said, “My understanding is that not having the centers in town doesn’t disallow people from using it or acquiring it.”

However, Holt took a tougher stand. Citing recent bans in Ignacio and Bayfield, Holt stated complete opposition to medical marijuana including delivery into town and growing operations.

Proponents of medical marijuana took issue with council’s discussion up to that point. A medical marijuana “care provider” (someone licensed to grow marijuana for the purpose of providing it to a limited number of patients), John Voden, said, “It is something that people shouldn’t be forced to drive to Durango to get,” stating that several of his patients are physically unable to make the drive. “It’s a medicine.”

Avowed medical marijuana patient John Andres added, “If it wasn’t for medical marijuana, I probably wouldn’t be standing up here because I’d be on Oxycontin. I don’t want to be on Oxycontin.”

Council member Jerry Jackson spoke to the benefits of medical marijuana, saying he personally knows several people who prefer medical marijuana to prescription drugs.

“There’s a rebound effect with prescription drugs, painkillers,” he said. “There’s no coincidence that the drug companies oppose alternative medicines,” adding that he would support the moratorium.

Earlier, during a discussion at the joint town/county meeting, local officials called on Pagosa Springs Police Chief Bill Rockensock to comment on crime associated with medical marijuana centers. Rockensock stated that his research on towns similar in size to Pagosa Springs had not reported significant increases in crime and, likewise, no rise in crime had been noticed in towns throughout Colorado. Nonetheless, Rockensock did say he had anecdotal evidence that crime had risen significantly around medical marijuana centers in larger cities where medical marijuana had been more established (e.g. Los Angeles, Calif.).

Rockensock was called upon again to repeat his findings at the council meeting, just before the vote was taken.

With a motion to accept the moratorium made by Jackson and a second by council member Darrell Cotton, council approved the moratorium by a 4-1 vote.

While council was provided with four options for handling the medical marijuana issue, electing to place a moratorium on business licenses for medical marijuana centers until July 1, 2011, the residents of Pagosa Springs were left with no options — including the chance to vote in the immediate future. Given a Sept. 3 deadline for entering initiatives on the ballot for the Nov. 2 general election, any petition to bring the matter to the voters would stand a slim chance of meeting the ballot filing deadline.

jim@pagosasun.com