Though more veterans are demanding access, the military's relationship with cannabis is still strained. Here in Colorado Springs, lawmakers have been too squeamish to allow recreational sales anywhere near our prized military installations for fear the Department of Defense would pull out of our local economy.
Former Mayor Steve Bach cited the military as a reason for concern in 2014, and several of the City Council's former military members were the ban's strongest proponents. They include Councilor Don Knight, recently reelected in District 1, who once told the Independent, "Before I came on Council, I spent 10 years in the [Department of Defense], walking the halls of the Pentagon. I know that civic leaders from Texas, Alabama, all over the country are protecting the bases in their cities. In Colorado now, because we've got marijuana, that counts against us."
Although the western U.S. has pioneered the legalization movement and plays host to some of the country's largest military installations, most metro areas don't follow the Springs' model. As in, they either don't ban cannabis or don't use the military as justification for a ban. California, for example, is home to the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego County, Edwards Air Force Base near Los Angeles, Barstow's Fort Irwin and Naval Base San Diego. Together, they give the Golden State one of the largest military populations in the country.
But California's marijuana laws don't seem dependent on military concentrations.
Some military-heavy areas are, in fact, more cannabis-friendly than surrounding areas. The City of San Diego houses more military personnel than San Diego County, but while the city proper welcomes cannabis, San Diego County Supervisors banned it in unincorporated areas.
On the other hand, both Dale Gieringer of California NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and San Diego cannabis business attorney Gina Austin pointed to Oceanside, near Camp Pendleton, as the only California community that comes close to mirroring Colorado Springs. Oceanside passed a resolution against their state's Proposition 64, which legalized recreational pot, three months before the 2016 vote, but unlike Colorado Springs the military didn't play a major role in their debate. After Prop 64 passed, Oceanside's city council, having banned retail marijuana, went further, unanimously voting to extend a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries.
Just to the north, Washington doesn't let the military detract from cannabis at all, due to a combination of statute and cultural acceptance of marijuana. Washington's Joint Base Lewis-McChord is the largest military installation in the western U.S. and the state's third largest employer. Kevin Oliver, executive director of the Washington state affiliate of NORML, said Washington's base-adjacent cities can't just opt out of retail sales the same way Colorado's can.
"One thing that's important to consider is that Colorado has an option for opt-out," he explained. "In Washington, there isn't an opt-out clause."
In Washington, local governments can, however, effectively exclude cannabis businesses through zoning, although none of the heavily military communities have. Bremerton, near a submarine base, has the same kind of military population that Colorado Springs does, but allows retail cannabis.
But Colorado Springs isn't the only city in the nation to consider the military when instituting bans. Far to the north, military installations do tend to coincide with tighter rules.
Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson plays a large role in Alaska's economy, and therefore had a say in regulatory talks. Anchorage's dual licensing and zoning requirements make the city among the most difficult places in Alaska for a cannabis business to operate. For example, Anchorage Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar, formerly an attorney for the Alaska National Guard, got a law passed that forbids pot shops from offering discounts to active military members.
Military bedroom communities got even more restrictive. Eagle River, a curious city-within-a-city in the Anchorage Municipality and largely a military bedroom community, has its own zoning rules that effectively stopped all cannabis businesses from operating within its boundaries.
Bottom line: Even if you never travel to these other communities, just remember that military presence doesn't necessarily have to preclude recreational marijuana — despite the Springs' paradigm to the contrary.
DJ Summers is a journalist and author of The Business of Cannabis, scheduled for publication in 2018.