As you read this, Colorado Springs could be slipping — or should that be leaping? — off the cliff of financial and operational stability. And yet, with thousands of still-undecided voters trying to make their decisions in a vitally important election, City Council this week helped create another problem. Not just something simple, like a $25.4 million budget shortfall, but something totally different.
After hearing about troubles and concerns accompanying the rapid growth of Colorado's medical marijuana industry, our city leaders could simply have thanked District Attorney Dan May, Police Chief Richard Myers and Deputy City Attorney Wynetta Massey for their input. There was no cause to take immediate action with the potential of shutting down every local dispensary and legal marijuana grower.
Council had an easy out: We're in the middle of an election (it's time to acknowledge that mail elections last three weeks, not one day), and we're sinking into a budget quagmire that could become far worse if Douglas Bruce's Measure 300 prevails. Instead of ordering "high-priority" action by the city's three remaining code enforcement officers — two of whom could be gone in two months if Measure 2C fails — why not examine the issues and make a decision in January?
There was some interest in being cautious, as Council set up a task force to form a strategy for regulating medical marijuana locally, the best way of dealing with the industry legalized by state constitutional amendment in 2000. But the city leaders also appeared to support the notion that because federal law prohibits anyone from growing marijuana, that makes all marijuana plants illegal. And every dispensary might be improperly zoned, which could lead to action.
Nobody mentioned that one of our more impulsive Councilors, Tom Gallagher, already had taken matters into his own hands. Like a modern-day Wyatt Earp, self-appointed Boss Gallagher last Friday sauntered into the downtown Sunshine Wellness Center — not a marijuana dispensary, not a grower, but merely a business with a staff physician providing marijuana prescriptions for patients with cancer or chronic pain, as state law allows. Gallagher told the Sunshine Wellness folks to be careful or they might be shut down.
Based on TV reporting, it's a wonder Gallagher didn't pull out a six-shooter and twirl it in his fingers, just for emphasis. But Gallagher insists he works in the same building, saw that Sunshine Wellness was on an adjacent floor and stopped by to visit.
"I was just telling 'em, watch out because the police chief is gunning for you," Gallagher says. "Bill Abeyta (who runs Sunshine Wellness) took it drastically different. But my only intent was to give them a heads-up. I have no problem with them because medical marijuana is legal, and has been for about 10 years. I don't think I crossed any lines."
Others aren't so sure.
"There have been instances in the past, with other Councils, when a member has tried to exert authority over a city employee or a citizen," Councilor Scott Hente says. "Whenever that has happened, I've felt it was outside the bounds. And this looks clearly like one of those cases. ... I hate to see an elected official try to use his supposed authority in a one-on-one situation on any kind of issue."
Gallagher says Abeyta now has agreed to join the "task force," whose first meeting will be at 7 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 5 in City Hall. Gallagher adds, "I see no reason this industry can't self-regulate. It's not like a kid can walk in off the street and buy the stuff."
Yet, Council still gave the OK for stepped-up enforcement of zoning and plant-growing issues. Some city leaders seem to view medical marijuana as a clear and present danger to society. Never mind that alcohol, and prescription medications, are far more addictive and destroy lives. We don't hear of anyone mellowed out on weed going berserk and killing people or going wacko.
Colorado Springs must not blow this opportunity to regulate the industry, benefit financially from it, and to prevent abuses. The people put medical marijuana into Colorado's constitution, which should be a mandate to help the industry survive, not find ways to shut it down.
Of course, as the word gets around, dispensaries might take their economic impact and move elsewhere — like Manitou Springs.
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