Council debates pot issue


Staff Writer

The regulated retail sale of marijuana is a topic most members of the Pagosa Springs Town Council seemed reluctant to even discuss until last week, when Mayor Ross Aragon announced there would be a work session to explore the issue.

“It is very unusual for us to have the first reading of an ordinance,” Aragon explained at last week’s town council meeting, “without ever having any kind of dialogue, and I felt it was important to have that before we do the second reading.”

This statement was a complete turnaround from the late March meeting when the mayor said, “We don’t want marijuana in our community. With recreational marijuana, what is there to discuss? What kind of message are we sending to our tourist-based economy? What kind of research do you want to do? I don’t have to do research to know that recreational marijuana is bad for children. It doesn’t send a good message. No one can prohibit discussion, but I think enough has been said.”

At the April 18 town council meeting, Town Manager David Mitchem presented Ordinance 788, which would permanently ban all types of marijuana businesses from town. While council members David Schanzenbaker and Clint Alley questioned this move, protest also came from the general public.

Bill Delany, the owner of Good Earth Meds, sent an e-mail to town council, stating, “There is a saying that I like. It goes like this: ‘Contempt prior to investigation is folly.’  Along those lines, I would like to invite each of you (individually, or collectively) to visit Good Earth Meds (retail & production) prior to your Second Reading. It is much easier to be distrustful of something if you have never experienced it. We are proud of  the way that we have served the residents of this county since 2009 and would like for you to witness first hand, that which you are about to outlaw.”

Delany also requested some time to address the council before the vote on the second reading of Ordinance 788. Two misconceptions Delany wished to dispel were the idea that all medical marijuana establishments are owned and operated by people who used to be illegal drug dealers and that medical marijuana facilities are just a front for people who want to get high.

At the beginning of Tuesday’s work session, Aragon said, “This is a work session, so we will not be voting; we will just be putting all of the marbles on the table, so to speak.” He also explained that, normally, town council work sessions are held to allow members of the council to discuss an issue; public comment is generally not permitted.

However, in this case Delany, as an expert witness, was given seven minutes to testify. He began by explaining his personal struggles with alcohol and how that was different from his use of marijuana, described how his business was started and his plans for expansion, then concluded by describing his customers — both locals and the tourists who travel here from out of state specifically because of his business.

Delany explained that he didn’t want to open a store in the downtown area, but would like to expand to a location in the uptown area.

“If you ever did allow me to open up a store along the corridor, it’s all about location, and I’m all about community sensitivity; I can do it in almost an invisible fashion.”

“I haven’t changed my position on this issue in any way, shape or form,” Police Chief William Rockensock began, once Delany finished. “From my perspective, the voters absolutely decided that they wanted to make the consumption of marijuana for anyone over the age of 21 legal. We did that. We amended our ordinances to allow that to occur.

“Where the sticking point occurs is whether or not the voters actually voted to allow us to have retail shops or not, and that’s where I have a difference of opinion from most people. Everyone seems to think that the voters said we must have retail shops, but in my opinion the voters gave us choices. They didn’t say we must have them; they said we have an option.”

“This isn’t a debate about whether marijuana is healthy or not,” council member Don Volger said. “As far as I’m concerned, for many it can be very unhealthy — so can alcohol, so can tobacco, so can eating too much, so can not getting enough exercise. There are a lot of things that are unhealthy.

“It’s hard for me, as a career law enforcement officer, to change my thinking about something that has always been illegal. It was very easy when I was in law enforcement to say, ‘No.’

“Now a majority of the people in the state of Colorado, and Archuleta County, said, ‘Why should this be that much different from alcohol?’ It also destroys lives, but there are a lot of responsible people who use alcohol and it doesn’t. They can be functional members of society and use alcohol. I am one of them. I am not a teetotaler. I do not smoke marijuana, and just because it’s legal I don’t see myself ever smoking marijuana, but does that mean other adults should be forced to abide by my decisions if they can do it responsibly? That decision was made in this amendment.

“We have to make a decision whether we are going to allow retail sales or not. I’ll make this brief: I think we should. I don’t want to see it on the highway. I don’t want to see a lot of signage. And I don’t want to see more than one or two retail establishments at the most, but I see no reason why we shouldn’t allow it. I think it can be done discreetly and it will benefit this community by avoiding further polarization.

“I don’t think a retail establishment is that big of a deal. The state is wrestling with these issues right now. They are going to give some guidelines, just as they have done for the sale and distribution of alcohol. I don’t think we should have any marijuana clubs; I don’t think we can. The most common way that marijuana is taken into the body is by smoking, and we have state laws that prohibit smoking in public. We’re not going to have a place where people can go and party and smoke dope and get high and have fun.

“As far as growing, we are the town. If they want to do something in the county as far as growing or manufacturing, fine. That’s a better place to do it; it’s rural. We’re not rural.

“But, I think we can safely allow one retail shop in town with specific restrictions, and we should be able to do that within a reasonable timeframe. I think we can proceed with an ordinance that prohibits clubs, prohibits manufacturing, but as far as a retail shop in town, I have no objection to it.”

Volger and council member Tracy Bunning are both former Pagosa Springs police chiefs.

“I think there is a large percentage of Colorado residents,” Bunning added, “who didn’t vote for Amendment 64 because they wanted to have legal access to marijuana. Maybe it is just as ex-law enforcement, but I think many people looked at the fact that, for forty years, we’ve been fighting the war on drugs.

“We’ve been spending countless millions and billions of dollars to try to curtail the manufacture, sales and use of illegal substances and all that we have really accomplished is that we have filled up the existing prisons and we have built numerous new prisons, which are full. In my opinion, I don’t think we are really making any progress on that front.

“At some point, you have to ask yourself, ‘Can we make this country safer? Can we take the profit out of the illegal drug traffic? Can we prevent the rip-offs that used to frequently result in homicides?’ The answer is ‘Yes, it is a possibility.’ Whether it will be a reality or not, only time will tell.”

Most council members argued for scrapping Ordinance 788 until October, when clearer directions will come down from the state. However, council member Darrel Cotton proposed continuing with the second reading of the ordinance and establishing the ban immediately, with the understanding that it can always be repealed later if the council decides to change its mind.

Since no decisions could be made in the work session, it remains to be seen whether or not the second reading of the ordinance will appear on the agenda of the next regular town council meeting.