"The moratorium will not be extended" reads a line in the ordinance that the Colorado Springs City Council passed in late November, establishing a six-month moratorium on marijuana business licensing. Now, with that moratorium due to expire on May 25, Council is considering putting a new one in place — this time for a full year.
"I hear what you're saying, 'It's not an extension; it's a whole new ordinance.' I got you," Speakeasy Vape Lounge owner and City Council hopeful Jaymen Johnson said to Council at its April 26 meeting. "It seems you guys have figured out the loophole thing just as well as the clubs did, so congratulations. Glad we could show you how it's done."
Sardonic chuckles emanated from the sparse crowd but subsided quickly. Council was discussing the prospect of reneging on a clear promise on which many business owners' investments depend.
Councilor Larry Bagley, who chaired the marijuana task force created by the last moratorium that recommended this new moratorium, explained the rationale. "We worked for six months now, and that's almost no time at all," he said. "The future is going to be something we never thought of. We need to take a little time ... to make some really good plans going forward..."
The original moratorium was enacted because Council determined that even though the medical marijuana industry is 15 years old, "a situation [that affects] the life, health, property and the public peace exists." Hence the city shouldn't process any land use applications for medical marijuana facilities (the only type allowed in the Springs) until a task force appointed by Council president Merv Bennett takes the time to develop some new rules and regulations to address that situation.
Upon first convening, the task force decided to prioritize health and safety issues. Determining what those were and what to do about them was a slow process, but in the end, the 14-member group put forward four ordinances for Council to consider:
• The 12-plant-per-residence limit;
• A rezoning of commercial grow houses to use-by-right in industrial areas with conditional use in some commercial areas;
• A split in the mmj-infused product manufacturing license (MMIP) into hazardous — only permitted in industrial zones — and non-hazardous — conditionally permitted in commercial zones;
• And an increase in the mandatory buffer between marijuana businesses and schools, child-care centers and substance abuse treatment facilities from 400 to 1,000 feet.
As those proposals work their way through the legislative process, the task force made a last-minute recommendation for another year-long moratorium so it can tackle some secondary issues that didn't count as top priority first time around. That includes things like co-op caregiver grows, advertising, gifting, co-location (read: Gas and Grass), electric and water usage, odor control and 420-friendly vacation rentals.
Green Pharm owner Dale Hecht was one of the few pro-cannabis task force members. Though he's satisfied with what came out of the group, he argued that going through the same song and dance again would be pointless.
"Did we get every issue covered? Absolutely not," he said. "Would we get every issue covered in the next year? I'd say absolutely not. Even if we had a 10-year moratorium, you won't get every issue covered because this is a fluid industry."
Others argued that stifling such a "fluid" industry would run counter to the free market principles which nearly everyone in the room professed.
On a nuts-and-bolts level, Dan Rial — president of the Pikes Peak Mechanical Contractors Association — said, "There's a lot of money being brought into the city [through] taxes, permits, architecture, construction and design. ... If you put a moratorium, we'll lose jobs." What gets built in the city, he argued, should be dictated by demand, not by artificial limits.
A Wellness Centers owner Tom Scudder, who also served on the task force, was the first to propose the new moratorium, though he has since clarified that he'd prefer a hard cap on licenses (as Denver now has). He pointed out that the Springs, though it has just over 8 percent of the state's population, has more than a quarter of the state's dispensaries. Those dispensaries, however, serve customers from all over southern and eastern Colorado, where various jurisdictions have outlawed marijuana sales of any kind.
"I believe in the free market, " Scudder said. "But we need to be real that we don't have a free market here."
Johnson of the Vape Lounge noted that government regulations are already squeezing consumers, especially patients. "Combined with the ordinance against grows, you're strong-arming patients to go to these dispensaries," Johnson said, acknowledging there were two (three depending how you count it) pro-cannabis task force members who had a hand in crafting these regulations. But, he noted, "to say that dispensary owners have the best will of consumers in mind is a little like letting Walmart decide what happens with food stamps and where you can spend them."
Tonya Garduno of the Southern Colorado Cannabis Council was blunt: "There's no reason to do this unless you want to destroy the industry, which is what I think is truly happening."
After some procedural jockeying, Council voted 5-3 in favor of adopting the ordinance. Councilors Bill Murray, Helen Collins and Keith King were in the minority. Second reading was scheduled for May 10, after the Indy's press deadline.