‘The hard part starts now’ Local governments still can ban marijuana retailers

DENVER – The Legislature and governor have had their say on marijuana. Now it’s everyone else’s turn.

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed six marijuana-related bills into law Tuesday. They specify how the retail pot business will operate, when users are too high to drive a car, and how the Legislature would like the drug to be taxed.

“Clearly we are charting new territory here. Other states haven’t been through this process the way we have,” Hickenlooper said.

Despite months of work by the Legislature, the shape of the country’s first legal marijuana industry will be determined by city councils, the U.S. Department of Justice and, crucially, the voters of the state.

“The hard part starts now. Getting this through the statehouse was the easy part,” said Kevin Bommer, a lobbyist for the Colorado Municipal League and a member of the task force that drafted much of the marijuana legislation Hickenlooper signed.

The state Department of Revenue has only until July 1 to write rules that implement the bills Hickenlooper signed, and it must start taking business license applications by October.

Medical pot dispensaries have exclusive rights through September 2014 to apply to become recreational marijuana stores.

But local governments will be able to ban retail marijuana stores inside their jurisdictions, and many of them are expected to take at least a temporary time-out on storefront pot sales.

No matter what happens with retail stores, Colorado adults now have a right granted through the state constitution to possess and use up to one ounce of pot.

Colorado voters legalized recreational marijuana through Amendment 64 last November. Voters in Washington passed a similar measure. But the drug is still illegal under federal law, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has not said how the feds will handle marijuana in Colorado and Washington.

Hickenlooper said his staff is in weekly contact with the Justice Department, and he thinks a decision is coming relatively soon.

“We’re optimistic that they’re going to be a little more specific in terms of their approach to this issue,” he said.

Colorado voters aren’t finished with marijuana, either.

One of the bills Hickenlooper signed asks voters for two taxes on pot sales – a 15 percent wholesale excise tax and a 10 percent retail sales tax. The Legislature could adjust the sales tax up to 15 percent if it takes effect.

If voters reject the taxes, the state might have to cut its school budget to pay for marijuana inspectors, Hickenlooper said. Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, who chaired the Legislature’s special marijuana committee, made the same point.

“We need to make sure – and this is a plea to the people of Colorado – to pass these taxes in the fall,” Pabon said.

Hickenlooper opposed Amendment 64, but he said it’s the government’s job to follow voters’ wishes. He still sounded less than enthusiastic about the situation, though.

“Clearly, this industry will create jobs. Whether it’s good for the brand of the state in terms of our economy is still up in the air,” he said.

joeh@cortezjournal.com