Cortez council split on retail marijuana

A majority of municipal leaders have indicated they’d like voters to decide if retail marijuana sales should be legal in Cortez, while a minority insists that voters have decided the issue.

At the conclusion of a 55-minute discussion on Tuesday, May 13, four city council members suggested they’d prefer that citizens voted on allowing the legal commodity in city limits.

“I think this is a very sensitive issue for our area, and the residents should have their opportunity (to vote),” said council member Bob Archibeque.

Shawna McLaughlin, Tom Buter and Orly Lucero sided with Archibeque, a local educator for the past four decades.

“I’m worried about the impact on our youth,” Archibeque said.

Although no final decision was made Tuesday to send the issue to voters, City Attorney Mike Green was directed to develop ballot questions for both an up or down vote to license retail outlets and whether special excise taxes should be imposed on retail sales. An election would cost about $10,000, officials said.

Other options presented Tuesday included enacting an enabling or prohibitive ordinance. Green said an enabling ordinance would legalize retail outlets and establish zoning and licensing guidelines. A prohibitive ordinance would simply outlaw recreational sales altogether, he said.

Mayor Karen Sheek, Mayor Pro-Tem Ty Keel and councilman Jim Price each indicated that municipal leaders were obligated to honor the democratic process, and honor voter demands to reform marijuana laws.

“I have some really strong concerns about (marijuana) existing underground,” said Sheek.

“It’s legal in this state,” she said. “The voters have already spoken.”

An enabling ordinance would be easy to develop, Green said, and would be similar to the city’s medical marijuana law.

“We currently have seven spots on the city map that are zoned for medical marijuana,” Green said. “That’s what we would try to stick with (for retail).”

After the city’s workshop, medical marijuana purveyor Garrett Smith, owner of The Herbal Alternative on Lebanon Road, said a desire to put it to a vote demonstrates that some council members were “dragging their feet.”

“The city council should decide,” said Smith. “They were elected, and they should do their job, either vote ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ for retail sales.”

In operation for the past two years, The Herbal Alternative is working to double the size of its facilities. Smith said he underestimated demand for medical marijuana, forcing the family-owned business to expand its operations.

“We see anywhere from 20 to 40 customers a day come in through the door wanting to buy recreational marijuana,” he said.

Green said he had not spent a lot of time on the retail marijuana issue since the city issued a 10-month moratorium in August. He suggested the city should extend its prohibition on recreational sales, which expires June 30.

City Manager Shane Hale said leaders would continue the debate next month.

Four medical marijuana businesses are licensed in Cortez. One medical shop was shut down last year after failing a building inspection. Only current medical businesses would be allowed to apply for a recreational license.

According to officials, the city’s 4 percent sales tax on medical marijuana products adds $50,000 annually to city coffers.

Colorado became the first state to regulate recreational marijuana sales, which started on Jan. 1. According to state officials, Colorado made $7.3 million in recreational marijuana taxes in the first three months of 2014.

Telluride is the nearest location to purchase retail marijuana. This week, officials in Mancos were provided a 28-page draft of retail marijuana regulations to consider, and Dolores officials recently extended its moratorium.

tbaker@cortezjournal.com