National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Colo. counties face decisions, uncertainty after pot vote

By Charlie Ban

Amendment 64’s passage in Colorado may have legalized marijuana possession, use and cultivation, but some counties aren’t inhaling. Under the new law, counties can regulate commercial sales and cultivation. They may in fact, prohibit licensing for retail operations.

Douglas County, south of Denver, got out of the gate quickly following Election Day, having its first reading of an ordinance banning marijuana cultivation and retail sale.

“It’s become one of the models for counties exercising local control,” said county spokeswoman Wendy Holmes, who added that Colorado Counties, Inc., the state’s association of counties, distributed the ordinance to counties statewide. “We like to help other counties, and there are others who aren’t on board with this (legalization).”

The Board of Commissioners’ swift action was motivated by marijuana’s unpopularity at the polls in Douglas County. Over the past 12 years, four popular votes have failed to legalize either medical or recreational marijuana use.

“It was a no-brainer,” Holmes said. “The county needed to act quickly to send a message that we would respect the voters’ wishes. The voters told us precisely what to do, and that’s what we did.”

Meanwhile, on the state’s western border, Amendment 64 passed with a 79 percent vote in San Miguel County. Plans are already in place to adapt zoning regulations.

Planning Director Mike Rozycki said the county is following the blueprint from medical marijuana implementation and will adapt those licensing provisions.

He is not sure how long the state will maintain two similar sets of regulations, one for medical marijuana use and one for recreational.

The County Board has identified an industrial park where four or five medical marijuana dispensaries have operated without incident.

County officials are waiting for a governor’s task force and state Department of Revenue to write new regulations concerning retail sales, though.

“We have a number of local businesses there, close to the sheriff’s office and jail, removed from residential areas and schools,” Rozycki said.  “We expect we’ll see growers make use of natural light for their grow operations, and possibly move into larger warehouse space. It will be good for property taxes and reduce electricity costs.”

The amendment passed with 55 percent of the vote statewide in Colorado, with 31 of the state’s 64 counties voting to approve the measure. In the end, more people voted on the Amendment 64 question then on the presidential ticket: 1,382,991 vs. 1,322,998.

BulletClick here to see Douglas County's proposed marijuana regulation ordinance

 Bullet Click here to see Colorado Counties, Inc.'s presentation on Amendment 64

Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) issued an executive order Dec. 6 immediately codifying the amendment, a month ahead of schedule, though the federal government position on marijuana is still an issue, since it remains illegal. The Centennial State has had legal medical marijuana laws for 12 years.

 “The Department (of Justice’s) responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged,” said U.S. Attorney John Walsh. “Members of the public are also advised to remember that it remains against federal law to bring any amount of marijuana onto federal property, including all federal buildings, national parks and forests, military installations and courthouses.”

Much like with alcohol regulations, the amendment makes it legal for anyone over the age of 21 to possess or transport up to one ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants. It may not, however, be consumed — smoked or otherwise — in public. The state department of revenue must adopt regulations for the implementation of a licensing program by July 1, 2013. The Legislature has to set an excise tax, which voters would have to approve.

The Colorado Center on Law and Policy projects that Amendment 64 will add $14.5 million annually in new local sales tax revenue.

“Ultimately, regulating marijuana like alcohol in Colorado would result in immediate savings, and it will quickly grow into a major new revenue stream for our state and localities,” said Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “It will also create jobs, generate millions of dollars for our state’s struggling school construction program, and provide business to a number of ancillary industries (real estate, construction, legal, marketing, etc.).”

Hickenlooper created a task force to manage implementation, which will include Eric Bergman, CCI policy and research supervisor.

“As you might imagine, there are a million questions around it,” Bergman said. “The phrase ‘public use’ is a problem. What is public? In your car? There’s a lot to clarify.”

Counties have until Oct. 1, 2013 to have licensing regulations in place. Bergman said CCI is recommending counties that are unsure about how to proceed enact a temporary ban. Banning commercial activity, however, may create a black market in those counties, he said.

“Some counties that aren’t morally against it may ban it just because it’s so uncertain,” he said. “They can always revise the ban, that’s the advice we’ve been giving — if in doubt, snuff it out.”