Tuesday’s vote means millions of people in California, Massachussetts and Nevada just boarded the retail marijuana train, apparently leaving Colorado Springs stuck at the station.
Will Colorado Springs join them and become 420-friendly any time soon? Or will the city become even more of an outlier, an island of prohibition in a sea of legalization?
Even as the voices for marijuana legalization become more powerful, many Colorado Springs elected officials find themselves in a foggy limbo. As far as the federal government is concerned, cannabis is still a Schedule 1 controlled substance, along with heroin, LSD, Quaaludes, peyote and psilocybin. Despite the law, 25 states and the District of Columbia legalized medical marijuana prior to the election, and four (Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Alaska) also permitted the sale of recreational marijuana. The District of Columbia also has limited legal recreational marijuana.
To muddy the waters further, both sides make emphatic — and equally dubious — claims.
The Drug Enforcement Agency’s website claims that the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse links marijuana use with stealing, attacking people and destroying property.
Likewise, The Marijuana Project touts the medical benefits of cannabis, claiming that it can benefit those who suffer from anorexia, chronic pain, neuropathic pain, glaucoma, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, obesity, AIDS, cancer, depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s — and 37 other serious ailments. The organization is confident enough in its beliefs to support “wide-scale, clinical research trials so that physicians may better assess cannabis’ medical potential.”
Since cannabis remains banned at the federal level, there have been few experiments testing the efficacy of the drug for medical use — but that is changing with increasing legalization. The DEA has approved a Colorado study about using marijuana as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, for instance. Assertions by advocates and opponents appear to cherry-pick dubious datasets to arrive at predetermined conclusions, according to the Cato Institute.
“Our conclusion is that state marijuana legalizations have had minimal effect on marijuana use and related outcomes,” the authors of the Cato study wrote. “On the basis of available data, we find little support for the stronger claims made by either opponents or advocates of legalization. The absence of significant adverse consequences is especially striking given the sometimes dire predictions made by legalization opponents.”
MARIJUANA AS A BUSINESS
An industry that emerged from the shadows 15 years ago now accounts for more than $1 billion in annual sales and more than $200 million in state and local sales taxes.
Even though Colorado Springs does not permit recreational sales, the city has nevertheless reaped a substantial windfall from medical marijuana.
“We do not forecast individual industries when putting together the sales tax revenue budget,” said Budget Manager Charae McDaniel. “However, in looking at the medical marijuana sales tax collection history, and doing a very back-of-the-envelope estimate, it looks like we could collect between $3.5 to $4 million in sales tax in 2017 from medical marijuana.”
A Colorado visitor survey in 2015 found that 50 percent of visitors said legalization of recreational marijuana influenced their decision to visit.
Ignoring the obvious, state officials contend that such influence might have been negative, not positive.
Amanda Miller Luciano, a Realtor who caters to a younger demographic, is amused by their spin.
“It’s sort of undeniable that marijuana has become a part of Colorado,” she said. “I went to see Amy Schumer in Denver last week. She said, ‘I’m in Colorado, so of course I went to a retail store and bought some edibles.’ I’ve had clients who moved here specifically to work in the industry, and they’re still here — working, paying taxes and contributing to the city.”
NOT ALWAYS WELCOME
Yet instead of welcoming the influx of capital, labor and curious “canna-tourists” to Colorado, some state and local officials pretend they don’t exist.
“We will never have a marijuana tab” on the front page of the state website, said Cathy Ritter, who directs the Colorado Tourism Office.
“We’re not in a position to promote marijuana, because it would be a violation of federal law. Even if we could promote marijuana, we wouldn’t, because it’s not a major driver for travelers.”
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, an outspoken opponent of marijuana legalization, has even traveled outside Colorado to support anti-legalization efforts. Consistent majorities of the Colorado Springs City Council and the El Paso County Commission oppose allowing recreational marijuana sales in the city or unincorporated parts of the county, and have actively moved to limit or ban both medical and retail marijuana.
Far from welcoming canna-tourists, the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau — which receives 83 percent of its $5.3 million annual budget from the city’s hotel room/car rental tax — discourages them.
The organization’s web page informs visitors that they can’t buy retail marijuana in Colorado Springs, that it’s illegal to consume marijuana in public and that, “The manufacture, sales and possession of marijuana is still a federal offense.”
Some people believe it’s not the best approach to a potential windfall.
“We have a City Council full of semi-retired, middle-aged white guys,” said Tim Leigh, a prominent commercial real estate broker who served on council from 2011 to 2013. “I don’t think they understand or care about the business. It’s different in Pueblo — I was just involved in helping to assess the value of a major marijuana facility there. The owner had interest from a Wall Street investment group, and they settled on a price pretty quickly: $65 million.”
Is it too late for the city to jump on the marijuana bandwagon? As the Cato Institute points out, marijuana is no longer Colorado’s unique selling point.
“Colorado, as the first state to open retail shops, benefited from a ‘first mover advantage,’” the report said. “As more states legalize, any employment gains will become spread out more broadly, and marijuana tourism may diminish.”
That doesn’t mean that the business is in trouble, though. The Springs can still capitalize on recreational marijuana, Leigh said.
“The city ought to create a special retail marijuana zone along Colorado Avenue in No Man’s Land,” said Tim Leigh. “We already have retail sales in Manitou, a couple of blocks west. It hasn’t caused any problems, and Manitou gets all the tax revenue. Brilliant.”