Challenging retail pot in Pueblo 


The initiative against pot in both the city and county of Pueblo supposedly leaves the medical side alone. Indeed, the language of the submitted ballot question specifies "retail" marijuana facilities and the campaign for its passage focuses on the ills of legalizing recreational use. But, in effect, the two sides of the industry are so intertwined that banning one could pose a serious threat to the other.

According to the state Marijuana Enforcement Division's records, 17 of Pueblo County's 22 licensed retail marijuana dispensaries have a corresponding medical center — nearly all in the same location.

Those who buy on the medical side (where it's cheaper) must prove they're a patient with any of Colorado's nine qualifying conditions and those who buy on the recreational side must prove they are at least 21. Other than that, the cannabis products they buy are the same.

"If you take away rec, we just can't compete with other dispensaries in the state who can sell to anyone over 21," says Richard Kwessell, 34-year-old co-owner of Garden Greens LLC (better known as Strawberry Fields). Kwessell, who opened a recreational dispensary in Pueblo two years ago with his older brother Michael, says their medical center in Colorado Springs, which opened in 2010 on West Colorado Avenue, stands to lose should this ballot initiative win. He estimates that if his retail location in Pueblo County is shuttered, he could have to cut around two-thirds of the 60-plus people he employs between both locations.

"I don't know of a single team in the black right now," Kwessell says of Pueblo's burgeoning cannabis industry. The County currently allows every type of retail marijuana facility (cultivation, manufacturing, testing and sales) while the City allows all but the storefronts. Some on Council have floated the idea for a ballot question asking city voters to allow storefronts too.) The Southern Colorado Growers Association estimates that 1,308 jobs could be affected by a ban. Kwessell reckons many businesses couldn't weather the storm or would take years to bounce back.

Converting existing rec dispensaries into medical centers is an available avenue, but Kwessell says that process "is like pushing a freight train — it would take years."

One petitioner behind the initiative, attorney Dan Oldenburg, says people have the wrong idea about the aims of his group, Citizens for a Healthy Pueblo. They seek to ban retail marijuana, not recreational marijuana — and that's an important distinction.

"Recreational marijuana is legal everywhere in Colorado, but we want to ban the retail or commercial operations," Oldenburg told the Indy. "Whether or not it passes, people are still going to be able to use marijuana. They'll just have to go somewhere else to buy it."

The 3,947 patients registered in Pueblo County could find legal medicine in Colorado Springs to the north or Walsenburg and Trinidad to the south. Or, of course, they could grow it themselves.

"I hear all the time, people asking me how to start their own home grow," Kwessell says. "I think definitely you'd see a proliferation of the black market and more busts. So it's like, be careful what you wish for."

Pueblo County limits single family dwellings to 18 plants. Local and federal law enforcement have busted 23 home grows and arrested 35 people since the end of March.

"A lot of [the arrestees] had med cards," points out Oldenburg. He thinks establishing the legal recreational industry in 2014 spurred this surge in illegal "home invasion" grows. "Maybe they existed before," he says, "but they can hide in plain sight now."

Though the hard, causal link between growth in the legal industry and growth in the black market is elusive, Oldenburg believes shutting the latter down would help authorities rein in the former. But he disputes the effect on legitimate medical patients.

"We've had medical marijuana for years, so I really doubt it'll become unavailable to the people who really need it," he says. "If [the initiative] passes, I guess some [dispensaries] could have a hard time transferring to medical. Maybe some won't be able to keep their doors open, but every business is susceptible to failure."

Pueblo County is without any models for the territory it may tread. More than half of Colorado counties have opted out of retail sales under Amendment 64, but they all did it through governing bodies, not a citizens initiative.

Questions remain about the process — namely, how many signatures the petitioners need to make the ballot. Pueblo County Clerk Gilbert "Bo" Ortiz told Oldenburg and his partner they needed signatures from 5 percent of registered voters. (Last week, Citizens for a Healthy Pueblo submitted nearly double the required number of signatures, which Ortiz's staff is poring over now.) But a lawsuit alleging they should have been required to get 15 percent — per the process to ban alcohol sales — could keep the question off the ballot entirely. That, plus the last-minute enactment of a state law clarifying citizens' initiatives under Amendment 64 do indeed need signatures from 15 percent of voters, will complicate the legal challenge a district judge was to hear this week.


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