"I wake up every day and I still can't believe I'm selling marijuana," Ieshia Jiron says, reflecting on the past year she's been working at Leaf on the Mesa, a medical and recreational dispensary in downtown Pueblo. She spent nearly two decades working at Target, then some time dabbling in real estate until some friends approached her to help get the new business off the ground.
"We were sitting on buckets then, but business really took off," she says. "It's been amazing."
But an existential threat looms over Jiron and her 13 co-workers. A ballot initiative is taking shape that, if successful, would have Pueblo County stop issuing new rec licenses by November and force the closure of all existing retail pot shops, cultivation facilities, infused product manufacturers and testing facilities by 2017. Filed on March 31 by local attorney Dan Oldenburg and tree company owner Kenny Gierhart, the petition was approved by the county clerk's office on April 8. The petition needs signatures from 5 percent of Pueblo's registered voters to make it onto the ballot.
Clerk Bo "Gilbert" Ortiz says his office hasn't nailed down that exact number yet, but at last count there's around 108,000 voters on the rolls (5 percent of which is 5,400.)
"When I first heard (about the initiative) I kind of shrugged it off," Jiron says. "But then I realized I need to take this very seriously because my job is at stake. And my staff, I worry for them too. They all have families to feed, car payments, mortgage payments, utilities, all these bills ... I'm trying not to let my mind go there."
According to the Marijuana Enforcement Division, Pueblo County has 20 licensed recreational marijuana dispensaries. Compared to Denver's 156, that may not be much. Pueblo's skin in the game comes mostly in the form of cultivation facilities and infused product manufacturing, of which the county has 69 and 27, respectively. The Southern Colorado Growers Association, a trade group for the industry, estimates 1,308 jobs would be affected should the initiative pass.
That's had a ripple effect in other industries, especially construction. Last year, nearly 40 percent of all new commercial building permits in Pueblo County were for marijuana-related projects. If you look at just the unincorporated areas, marijuana-related projects made up nearly 70 percent of commercial building permits.
Over the past two years, Pueblo County's coffers grew by nearly $3.4 million thanks to retail marijuana tax revenue. An additional $3.5 million is expected annually from a new excise tax voters approved last November.
County Commissioner Sal Pace points to that economic impact as a sign that legalization is working in Pueblo: "First voters spoke at the polls, then with their wallets."
He's more frustrated than worried about this new initiative to undo the industry.
"I hate seeing our community being split up into two camps," Pace says. "I think they'll run, they'll lose and they'll realize they're in the minority. But this obviously isn't a settled issue in our society."
Pace favors extending the current moratorium on recreational marijuana business licenses beyond its expiration in 2017.
"I believe in the free market, yeah," he says, "but I do think it'd be good to do while we're trying to navigate this hostile climate."
Kenny Gierhart, one of the petition's filers, declined to discuss his motives beyond saying the issue "has personal value to me as a member of the community with kids and a business here." The public can expect more information about the initiative at an upcoming press conference. "Once that's out of the way, then I'd be happy to address anything else after," Gierhart said.
Jiron knows first-hand that cannabis can be divisive. "I have this friend, a great friend, and she's on the totally opposite side of me. She has her opinion and I have mine. We just don't discuss it on a personal level," she says. "It's a small community here; everyone knows everyone. I don't want to see us divided over what I do for a living."
For now, Jiron says she'll keep organizing with other workers in the industry to ward off the initiative. "I feel good but I'm trying to stay humble because I'm not sure where this is going to go."