Council considers marijuana sales

Polled at a city council workshop on Tuesday, a majority of city leaders hinted they wouldn’t choke recreational marijuana sales in Cortez.

Police Chief Roy Lane told council members he’s in favor of accepting commercial sales of marijuana. He said permitting retail outlets would enable his agency to better monitor and control marijuana in the community.

“We’re either going to have it on the front street, or we’re going to have it on the back street,” said Chief Lane. “It’s going to be here, no matter what.”

City Attorney Mike Green sparked the hour-long session with council members to provide updates on some of the new directives regarding recreational marijuana licensing. The state’s final licensing guidelines are expected to be released next month, he said.

“We’re going to a top-down system,” Green explained. “The license will be filed with the state. They in turn will send us a copy and half of the application fee.”

Green said any official recreational marijuana regulation adopted by the city would closely resemble the city’s current medical marijuana ordinance.

“The state has left us with one huge interpretation,” Green said. “There’s no legal definition of ‘openly and publicly’ anywhere, so we have some gray areas to work out.” Amendment 64, passed in November 2012, does not permit the open and public consumption of marijuana.

Green explained the lack of any current case law that defines whether an individual’s front porch or back porch, for example, is considered open or public. Green expects state lawmakers to address the specific issue during their next legislative session.

“Our first decision, really, is do you folks want to prohibit retail sales?” Green asked council members. “It’s really the only thing you can prohibit.”

The newly enacted Colorado Amendment 64 allows adults 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and to cultivate up to six plants inside their home. The new law also allows for retail sales.

“Marijuana is going to be here,” Green said.

Council members Tom Butler and Bob Archibeque both leaned in opposition of granting retail licensing, citing safety concerns for children. Teenagers are curious, and some simply are not strong enough to resist peer pressure, Archibeque argued.

“I’d like to think about it a little more,” he said. “With medical marijuana, then there’s a card, and you have more control. Right now, while I’m open for anything, I’m leaning to only medical marijuana.”

Council member Ty Keel sided with Chief Lane’s assessment, citing increased law enforcement control and monitoring.

“If I had to lean, I’d like to see our medical facilities go recreational,” he said. “It lessens the burden on the police department.”

In addition to more effective law enforcement, Mayor Pro Tem Matt Keefauver believes if the city allows commercial sales, fewer people would be inclined to grow marijuana at home.

“Everyday citizens are going to be growing marijuana in their basement or on their back porch, under the light of day, legally,” he said.

Mayor Dan Porter agreed, saying if commercial operators help to discourage home grown marijuana, then it could help to safeguard the public from fires ignited by indoor marijuana cultivation.

“It scares the hell out of me,” Porter said. “We just had a house burn down a month ago out at Pleasant View that was used for growing.”

Recognizing the pros and cons, council member Shawna McLaughlin also agreed with Lane in favor of granting retail sales. Her greatest concern was the potential for transients to flood Cortez simply to buy cannabis.

“If we have a large number of people cross the border to buy marijuana here, then what’s going to happen to our welfare systems?” she asked. Medical marijuana is legal in New Mexico but recreational use is not; Utah prohibits both.

“There are no easy answers,” Green responded.

“This is a tough one,” said Mayor Porter.

Green was instructed to proceed with writing a commercial marijuana ordinance, and council members are expected to receive the multi-page draft outlining the city’s recreational licensing procedures in August. The proposed ordinance is expected to address all four classifications in regard to licensing recreational marijuana: sales, cultivation, edibles and testing.

Before any ordinance is adopted, a public hearing will be held to allow for citizen input, said City Manager Shane Hale.

“We’re going to present the council with a draft ordinance,” he said. “Again, nothing’s been decided.”

Council member Karen Sheek was not in attendance at the workshop on Tuesday.

A one-year moratorium stipulates that only current medical marijuana facilities will be allowed to apply for recreational licensing. Hale expects all four of the city’s existing medical marijuana facilities to file those conversion requests.

If approved, recreational sales of marijuana would be limited to those 21 years of age and older. Medical sales are currently available to those 18 years old or older, if they possess a valid medical marijuana card.

According to Hale, the city would receive a portion of the sin tax from all recreational marijuana sales. Medical marijuana sales currently add approximately $56,000 annually to city coffers.

Voters in Cortez were split 50-50 when deciding medical marijuana sales. Regardless of the city council’s action whether or not to license recreational sales, citizens would still be able to file a referendum for a special election to prohibit or allow them, Hale said.