In Colorado, a county revolts against legalized marijuana
PUEBLO WEST, Colo. — Out here, in this unincorporated community of 30,000, there are miles of barren scrub-brush dotted with wild sunflowers. Low-slung houses sit on East Gun Powder Lane and North Cougar Drive. There’s a Walmart Supercenter, a Little Caesars, a Safeway with a small Starbucks tucked inside.
And, throughout the area, a revolt against retail marijuana sales smolders in a state awash in $1 billion of legal pot.
Four years ago, Coloradans voted to legalize marijuana for adults, and gave individual localities the opportunity to decide if they would allow retail marijuana shops.
But after local officials here welcomed the new industry, anti-marijuana activists in Pueblo County gathered enough signatures to force an unprecedented question on the November ballot: whether to terminate recreational marijuana sales and operations.
The Pueblo campaign comes just as Massachusetts and four other states are poised to vote on marijuana legalization Nov. 8. The debate in Colorado serves as a cautionary tale about the ambivalence of a community that has lived with legal marijuana and its myriad consequences, negative and positive.
Backers of the Pueblo repeal effort say retail marijuana shops and farms have brought increased vagrancy, crime, and an undesirable reputation as the pot capital of southern Colorado. Supporters of the status quo say the new industry has helped revitalize an area that has long struggled economically. Repeal, they say, would cost more than a thousand jobs. It would be giving in to the retrograde impulses of “prohibitionists.”
Possessing and using marijuana will remain legal in the county if voters back the measure. So will shops selling medical marijuana. But the facilities that are engaged in the recreational trade — more than 100 dispensaries, cultivation facilities, and infused product manufacturers — would have to shut down within a year.
The ballot question will force voters here to balance an array of competing claims. Has life in the county changed for better or for worse since the first dispensary opened in early 2014? Has crime gone up or down? Are the increased economic activity, jobs, and tax revenue worth the cost?
And is it wise — or even possible — to put the marijuana genie back in the bottle?
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Paula McPheeters, a budget manager at the local community college who is leading the ballot effort, says she got involved after an off-hand comment from one of her sons.
As she tells it, she was driving with him down a main drag in West Pueblo. The fifth-grader, who had just finished a D.A.R.E anti-drug program at school, spotted a dispensary and asked why marijuana was being sold legally in their hometown. McPheeters didn’t have a good answer.
But when he asked what she was going to do about it, McPheeters, 45, said it was an epiphany moment. She started attending county commissioner meetings, opposing new marijuana facilities.
A registered Republican, she expressed worry about rising crime and what she saw as a sharp uptick in homelessness. “I don’t mean your typical down-and-out guy in his 60s with a bottle,” she said. “I’m talking 20-somethings. And that’s what really struck me: What are they doing here?”
Pueblo County is split between the city of Pueblo (population: 109,000) and a sprawling rural area (population: 54,000). The majority of city voters cast ballots to legalize marijuana in 2012, but the majority of the rest of the county voted against it. Yet all of the recreational shops, grow operations, and marijuana product manufacturers ended up outside the city.
So, McPheeters says, she and her fellow residents who are most directly impacted by the industry want a direct say in whether it stays or goes. (The county and city will have separate repeal ballot measures, so the vote in one won’t affect the vote in the other.)
But at the heart of her argument is another factor: She doesn’t like how legalization changed small things in her family’s daily life.
McPheeters bristles at the potent smell of marijuana when she drives past some of the cultivation facilities. She hates that her kids’ school is near several dispensaries. She’s frustrated by the full-page ads in the local paper with huge photos of buds and coupons for $1 joints with a purchase of $20 or more.
“We don’t want our community identified by this anymore,” McPheeters said.
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County Commissioner Sal Pace, the chief opponent of the ballot effort, likes that his community is seen as a center for marijuana innovation. There are more than 1,300 Pueblo County jobs in the industry, according to its own count. And, Pace said, almost $4 million in annual tax revenue has gone to college scholarships, 4H and Future Farmers of America efforts, medical marijuana research at Colorado State University Pueblo, among other areas.
Pace, a Democrat, notes that the county — much poorer on average than Colorado as a whole — is getting in on the ground floor of an industry that could go national in the years to come.
“That’s one thing opponents here in Pueblo don’t understand,” he said. “It’s going to be legalized nationally no matter what and they can be left behind if they want, but if they do it to our community it’s one more really hard attack on Pueblo, one more lost opportunity. It’s like the steel mill closing again.”
Pace likes the idea, as he told Fortune magazine recently, of his home turf being “like the Napa Valley of cannabis.”
What Pace doesn’t like: the prospect of suddenly killing the progress that county has made.
The ballot measure to roll back the recreational marijuana industry, he said, would have a “huge and tragic” impact on the economy.
In an interview with the Globe over lunch at the Colorado State Fair, the sound of livestock braying in the background, Pace decried the referendum effort as driven by “narrow-minded NIMBYism.”
But Pace, the father of three young children, dismissed the idea that the cannabis industry had fundamentally changed the feel of the community.
And with predictions of a $20 billion legal marijuana industry nationwide by 2020, he had a question for the proponents of the ballot push: “Why don’t you want that free money?”
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Pueblo County Sheriff Kirk M. Taylor, who has been on the job for 10 years and in law enforcement for almost 30, doesn’t think legalization has been without a cost, and he will definitely vote for the repeal.
“It’s almost the perfect storm,” he said. “Inviting the industry here brings with it the collateral issues that we’re seeing now in Pueblo. Whether it be increased emergency room visits, increasing crime, nuisance crimes.”
Serious crimes — like murder, rape, and arson — are actually down over the past 2½ years, he said. But nuisance crimes — such as simple assaults, harassment, vandalism — are up.
“The media decides which narrative they want to perpetuate,” Taylor said, chuckling.
Taylor notes, however, there has been a proliferation of busts of black-market marijuana operations. The culprits are often from other states or countries and sometimes affiliated with cartels.
“None of the busts I have done within Pueblo County with these home-grows have been anything related to recreational marijuana — except for the fact that they are here because we have become such a marijuana-friendly county. It’s the only correlation or nexus you can draw between the two,” he said.
Predictions that legalization would kill the black market, Taylor noted, were false. Criminals from everywhere, he said, are attracted to Pueblo because they think it is a good place to grow cannabis.
Just recently, Taylor said, he arrested more than 17 Cuban-Americans from Florida, two Russians, and an Argentinian.
“They’re not coming for any other reason than to grow marijuana to take out of state,” he said.
Yet Mason Tvert, a key Colorado and national legalization advocate, said the idea of eliminating a legal, regulated market as a way to undermine the black market is logically unsound.
He said the problem is not Colorado’s law, it’s the fact that other states don’t have Colorado’s law.
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With rain on the horizon, dozens of shoppers headed for the Safeway in Pueblo West one evening last week. Residents were split on whether to embrace the marijuana repeal — and it’s not clear how the vote will shake out.
Shannon McPherson, a social worker, said marijuana legalization has “been bad for the whole Pueblo community.”
The 47-year-old, who works at a hospital, said “we see a lot more homeless people — we see a lot of people that have come without resources, that end up tapping our resources.”
Jason White, 44, owns a property management company and expressed frustration he has had to deal with marijuana-smoking squatters in some of his properties.
“We’ve got more crime. We’ve got more people on the street. Our hospitals are filled with people,” he said. And what of the economic benefits? It’s a net negative, he insisted. The extra revenue that comes in, “all it’s doing is going to the overwhelmed homeless shelters, hospitals, and the police.”
Davis Dossantos, 43, said he’s seen an uptick in vagrancy and panhandling since legalization.
But, walking out of the grocery store, Dossantos said he would vote against the ballot initiative because, he indicated, people will still use marijuana but will probably not drive somewhere else to buy it legally.
“You’re not really tackling the issue,” he said, shaking his head. “You’re forcing the individuals to go back to the drug dealers, and the black market will flourish even more.”