Pot shops crop up next to schools, churches

One of 19 dispensaries that can be found along Colorado Avenue.
One of 19 dispensaries that can be found along Colorado Avenue.

If there’s an epicenter for Colorado Springs’ burgeoning medical marijuana business, it’s West Colorado Avenue.

The bars, liquor stores, restaurants and retail shops that have long underpinned the avenue’s economy have been joined by a growing stream of “ganjapreneurs.”

According to a Business Journal count, there are 19 marijuana-related businesses along a three-mile stretch of Colorado Avenue between Seventh and 37th streets.

No other business corridor in the Springs has as high a concentration of medical marijuana dispensaries.

Because the city has no restrictions regulating where dispensaries can open, these businesses’ neighbors include schools and churches.

None appear to be within a 200-foot limit from other dispensaries favored by some members of the City Council. But if the council ultimately decides to mandate spacing between dispensaries of 500 or 1,000 feet, some of these businesses would be forced to shut their doors.

For example, there are four dispensaries located between 1402 and 1730 W. Colorado, a distance of about 2,000 feet. A 1,000-foot limit might force two to close or relocate, while three might survive a 500-foot limit.

Colorado voters amended the state constitution in 2000 to permit the sale of marijuana to people with certain defined medical conditions. Fear of arrest deterred potential entrants into the business until 2009, when the Obama administration allowed states that have legalized medical marijuana to regulate the industry without federal interference.

As many as 100,000 Colorado residents have obtained “marijuana cards” from doctors that allow them to buy medical marijuana from the dispensaries.

Many of the dispensaries occupy what were vacant buildings along Colorado.

Tanya Garduno, president of the Colorado Springs Medical Cannabis Council, said landlords at first were hesitant to lease space to the dispensaries but eventually welcomed them.

“From the landlord’s perspective, it’s great,” she said. “There was lots of vacant space on Colorado Avenue, it was affordable, and owners really needed tenants.”

Dispensary owners are sensitive to the fact that not everyone welcomes them.

Mike Bowley, who owns Cann-Apothecary, a dispensary at 1730 W. Colorado, said he bought and renovated the building that houses his business.

“We’re going to try to be a good business owner and fit into the community,” he said.

A reasonable distance?

City Council member Sean Paige, who has headed a task force exploring regulatory options, said the council is likely to consider forbidding dispensaries from operating within 200 feet of schools or churches. It appears that all of the existing Colorado Avenue sites would conform to such a law.

“Two hundred feet is reasonable,” he said. “One thousand feet would put them all out of business.”

Other council members, however, might prefer the 1,000-foot restriction.

Similarly controversial enterprises, such as strip clubs and other sexually oriented businesses, must be located 1,000 feet from schools, churches or residentially zoned property.

Liquor stores must be separated from each other by 500 feet.

Four D-11 facilities — West Middle School, West Elementary School, Buena Vista Montessori School and the Bijou School — are located along Pikes Peak and Kiowa, just steps off Colorado Avenue.

Several churches are also located on or near Colorado.

D-11 spokeswoman Elaine Naleski said the school board has thus far not taken a position on the issue.

Father Bob Epping of Sacred Heart Church, at 21st and Colorado, was surprised to learn how many marijuana-related businesses have opened on the street. “Oh, my goodness, “ he said. “I had no idea – you’ll have to give me a tour!  … I trust that they’re not breaking the law.”

Paige, whose district includes the Colorado Avenue corridor, said he had received “five or six” e-mails from concerned residents.

“Some of them were against the business per se,” he said, “and others wondered why there were so many.”

Westside resident Randy Purvis, who is serving his fifth term on city council, said he’s been contacted by many Westsiders. “They don’t much like it,” he said. “It’s back-door (marijuana) legalization.’”

El Paso County District Attorney Dan May said the dispensaries draw criminal activity. “We’re seeing burglaries, robberies and home invasions,” he said. “The concentration of dispensaries along Colorado will impact the neighborhoods.”

Good for business?

Business owners along the avenue have mixed feelings about the proliferation of pot shops.

“I’m not sure this really constitutes revitalization,” said Eve Carlson, who renovated a building at 1312 W. Colorado 10 years ago and launched Eve’s Revolution, a women’s clothing boutique. “I’d like to see 19 new retail stores, 19 renovated cottages. I don’t think there will be much benefit to existing merchants from (dispensary customers).”

Greccio Housing Development Director Jill Gaebler is also doubtful.

“These businesses have a right to exist,” she said, “but the way they flaunt it — it comes across as inappropriate.”

Greccio’s building at 1808 W. Colorado is less than half a block from Cann-Apothecary.

Garduno believes that the next few months will see a change in the number of shops.

“There will be a shakeout,” she predicted. “Maybe half the centers will close. There’s not enough business to support all of them.”

Paige thinks that will be that case, too.

“They’ll either be killed off by our regulations or by good old-fashioned capitalism,” he said.

Still, the number of dispensaries could still rise before a decrease begins.

Withing a few weeks, Planned Parenthood is moving out of its building at 1330 W. Colorado, leaving another vacancy.

Also, it’s going to take the council a while before regulations are adopted.

Vice Mayor Larry Small said the council can’t address the question of location limits until land-use zoning issues are resolved. Those questions must go before the city’s planning commission, which then makes a recommendation to the City Council. But planning commission consideration and appeals could add up to a lengthy process.

“It’ll probably be October or November before it gets to us,” Small said.