Marijuana faces an uncertain future in northern Colorado communities
March 21, 2013
Just a few miles separate Windsor's quaint Main Street from Fort Collins' Old Town.
The two communities share lifestyles and affluence and often mirror each other across an interstate, bridged literally and figuratively by Colo. 392. The business leaders of Windsor may frequent the quaint shops in its neighbor to the west. The retired residents and fitness fanatics may flock to the Poudre River Trail, a gateway cutting across both communities before continuing east to the agricultural center of Greeley.
In many ways, the communities of Windsor and Fort Collins share more similarities than differences, although their residents clearly are aware of and proud of their separate identities. But when it comes to marijuana and its consumption and sale, made possible by Amendment 64, Windsor is following a path more closely aligned with Greeley, its neighbor to the east.
Windsor is taking steps to ban the marijuana industry within its borders, which Greeley is expected to do once state regulations are known. Fort Collins, however, is more open to the sale of pot.
As cities work to craft plans for how best to manage the new marijuana market, what's emerging is a patchwork of policy that is only expected to grow, potentially leading to confusion among residents and law enforcement while each community works to maintain its own identity.
Among a host of topics northern Colorado communities have tackled recently — from oil and gas to parching droughts — marijuana has emerged as one of the most controversial. The battles began the minute voters approved Amendment 20 in 2000, which allowed for medical marijuana to treat debilitating conditions and paved the way for pot shops around the state.
Windsor Mayor John Vazquez supported the measure and said he was in no position to deny people the chance to relieve pain. In light of the decision and subsequent discussions, he recalled the focus being on creating "constitutionally defendable policy" and striking a balance so people could coexist with the industry. That's when things came "unglued" and dispensaries raced in, setting up six shops in Windsor in one week, he recalled.
"It was more proliferated drug dealing," he said. "It hit Windsor like a firestorm."
When the Colorado Legislature passed House Bill 1284 and allowed for local control over licensing and banning medical marijuana, it was clear pot was not welcome in Windsor's town limits. After a series of special elections, the industry was virtually knocked down and out.
No stranger to the game, Fort Collins was in the midst of a citizen-initiated ordinance to ban its 23 medical marijuana dispensaries. That measure passed in 2011, but was overturned in 2012 by another citizen initiative coinciding with the statewide Amendment 64 decision, which partially legalized the recreational use of marijuana for adults 21 years or older.
Greeley previously took a more aggressive approach in banning the industry, though it is now waiting for state recommendations on how best to regulate the industry before considering a further ban. Garden City, a tiny community nestled on the southeast outskirts of Greeley, remains in its own world where medical marijuana shops are allowed and city officials signal potential acceptance of the culture — a growing rarity in the region.
As communities and counties enter uncharted waters, some are jumping to get in front of the matter before any semblance of the industry can take root. It's why Weld County commissioners acted in January to bar marijuana shops and growing the crop in its unincorporated areas. Larimer County commissioners continue to eye a similar measure.
And it's why the Windsor Town Board has remained steadfast in its mission to uphold the community's desire, which they say is clear from past votes and resident feedback.
"Why is our community so passionate about it? I can only think that it goes back to core values, family values, quality of life and just the general image," Vazquez said. As for marijuana itself, he added, "It already exists — we all know it does. Sixty-four just brings it out of the shadows and into the light."
Pre-emptive planning or jumping the gun?
With a clear desire to be among the communities on the forefront, Windsor is expected to vote on second reading April 8 to ban large-scale growing operations, pot stores and private clubs within the community. Other areas have eyed similar legislation and many counties have already acted with similar laws, which some say is premature and unnecessary.
Cities have until Oct. 1 to decide whether they want to be a part of the retail side of marijuana, and there's still a long way to go. The Amendment 64 Task Force last week unveiled its final report describing in detail just how pot and the state could work together. Among the painstaking details included were everything from the proposed consequences for juvenile possession, taxing structures and even details about signage restrictions for the state-licensed retail facilities. The Legislature is expected to work out the final details and adopt new laws by the end of its spring legislative session — May 8.
Kevin Bommer, deputy director of the Colorado Municipal League, has helped lead the task force's numerous working groups. He said the patchwork of pot laws across Colorado is not surprising, mirroring in many ways what the state saw regarding medical marijuana. Regardless, he hinted that communities and residents could stand to learn plenty as the state works out final details.
"I think there will be a lot of variation among municipalities," Bommer said. "I can't chalk that up to anything more than each community — each municipality — is unique. People are attracted to living places for certain reasons and move away for other reasons. Over time, a town or city develops a character."
The matter, he said, bears a similar resemblance to the old days of the liquor code, which often saw a patchwork of laws. Greeley and parts of Fort Collins were dry communities, but people knew where they could go to get their booze.
"It's a marathon, not a sprint," Bommer said of groups acting pre-emptively, adding that it will feel like a sprint on the state level because of a barrage of high profile bills moving simultaneously.
The implementation and enforcement matter was not especially concerning for Weld District Attorney Ken Buck, who was outspoken against marijuana leading up to November's election. He stressed that much of the talk regarding marijuana implementation stems from licensing — something that can be clearly monitored or enforced on a city-by-city level. The private use of marijuana cannot be infringed on under the amendment.
"My primary concern is what happens within the borders of Weld County," he said. "I think the beauty of Colorado and the West is that we have local control about the issues."
As new laws begin to take effect, he said education would be the key to enforcement, but each community's identity will almost certainly be upheld.
"I think that it is a positive that we are diverse in our views and yet people can find a community that is welcome to them, no matter what their views are."
Today's politics, rooted in
Though divergent on cannabis laws, virtually all of the region was united years ago in one common pursuit — agriculture.
Farm fields still outnumber the paved highways in Weld and Larimer counties. But as the population in the area soared and Interstate 25 paved the way for growth in Fort Collins, subtle changes wedged their way into the area. Fort Collins, nestled in the foothills, saw a certain surge in the mountain and artistic crowds, led partly by the community's university atmosphere. Greeley has remained rooted in agriculture and it has become a farming powerhouse.
John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University, said the shift in lifestyle shows itself in political positions as well, with Fort Collins being a more liberal community politically, while Weld County and Greeley are significantly more conservative.
And caught in the middle is Windsor, what Straayer described as a "blend" of ranching lifestyles with residential affluence and expansion. Issues such as marijuana, he said, can bring the discussion full circle and highlight just how different areas truly can be.
"It's one thing to have a relaxed attitude toward pot legalization, but another to see a pot-stop open near one's home, business or school," Straayer said. "It may be analogous to locating a landfill or drilling rig. We all think it is OK, even a good idea, so long as it remains distant from us."
An uncertain future
Five years ago, it was virtually impossible to imagine a world in which recreational consumption of marijuana was legal. In fact, a measure that would have legalized it for adults was shot down. Now, however, barring any action from the federal government to prevent it, pot shops will begin to pop up in some communities, perhaps within a year. In the future, as the boundaries of the growing communities of Windsor, Fort Collins, Greeley and Loveland come together in the future, decisions about how to regulate marijuana will only become more complex.
"It's changing times and changing directions," Fort Collins Mayor Karen Weitkunat said, adding that it's a part of life and the future will always be unpredictable. Regardless, what emerges out of the changing policies on marijuana won't be confined to just one city or one county.
"We share the same people," she said. "We will define northern Colorado, and I think we'll do it as a team."
Greeley, which previously banned medical marijuana from the city, is taking a wait-and-see approach. City council has largely been absent from the discussions and has opted instead to wait for guidance from the Colorado Municipal League. Mayor Tom Norton stressed that the council is going to respect the Oct. 1 deadline and the council is expected to take up the matter this summer.
While it's anyone's guess what the future holds for recreational weed in conservative farming communities, posh business districts or liberal college towns, it is possible Windsor could one day see shops open in town as moods and mores change.
"Could it happen?" Vazquez asked. "Absolutely. Would it shock me? Not in the least."
— Greeley Tribune reporter Analisa Romano contributed to this story.