BENT COUNTY, Colorado — It's been nearly a decade since Colorado voters passed Amendment 64 authorizing the sale of recreational marijuana. Bigger cities like Pueblo, Denver, and Boulder quickly drafted regulations to allow for the drug to be sold locally, but many rural communities initially resisted that change.
However, attitudes about marijuana legalization seem to be changing in the Lower Arkansas Valley. There are now nine licensed marijuana businesses operating in counties east of Pueblo. Three are located in Rocky Ford, the other six are in Las Animas.
More recently, campaigns have worked to bring marijuana dispensaries to Lamar.
Voters in Rocky Ford first approved a ballot question authorizing medical marijuana dispensaries in the community in 2016. The city council changed its ordinance in 2018 to allow for retail marijuana sales. However, the number of licenses was capped at the three existing businesses.
That same year, voters in Las Animas passed a retail marijuana ballot question. The city has since issued licenses to five dispensaries and one manufacturer of marijuana-infused products.
Mayor Scott Peterson said it's generated economic growth in his community.
"Buildings that were empty are now in production," Peterson said.
"There are new jobs, not only in the construction, the renovation of old buildings, but jobs for people who work in these retail outlets and grow operations. So, we have a net growth of employment."
Amanda Leck, the Executive Director of the Bent County Development Foundation sees the cannabis industry as a catalyst for growth.
"First of all, we have investors who started just opening dispensaries within the city limits, and then they recognized it's a great place to live, it's a great place to do business," Leck said. "They can move their families here and they're seeding new businesses that aren't cannabis-based."
When voters passed the marijuana ballot question in 2018, a second question asking for an excise tax failed. City Clerk Charmaine Tripp explained that marijuana tax collections during the first year were modest. When the city asked for an excise tax again the following year, it passed.
"The first year we didn't collect the full amount. So, it was lower of course," Tripp said. "We've collected about $750,000 that we have saved in the bank."
Council authorized some of the money to be spent upgrading the clubhouse as the golf course. Another $10,000 was used as matching funds for a $100,000 downtown revitalization grant from C-DOT. However, the majority of that $750,000 remains in savings.
"We've saved it because we're wanting the people to decide how they would like that to be spent," Tripp explained.
"The amount of money we have in a bank is an amount of money we would have never dreamed of 5 or 10 years ago," Peterson added.
He believes public attitudes towards marijuana are changing.
"I haven't had one person say you've gotta unwind this stuff, it's horrible," said Peterson.
Voters in Lamar also approved a pair of ballot questions in November authorizing retail marijuana sales and imposing an excise tax. However, a judge declared those election results invalid in a lawsuit that argued the city didn't follow its charter when putting the questions on the ballot.
The city charter requires citizens' petitions to obtain a number of signatures equal to 15 percent of the turnout from the most recent election. The city clerk certified the petition as sufficient using the state standard of 5 percent.
Belinda Sturges discovered the city's error by requesting documents from the city using the Colorado Open Records Act.
"Well, some people think I'm in opposition. What I'm really after is just what is best for our community," she said.
Sturges said she is personally concerned about recent medical research that correlates heavy THC consumption (the psychoactive compound in marijuana) with the onset of mental illness.
She also notes that the City of Lamar enacted a moratorium on marijuana sales after the passage of Amendment 64. She believes that impacted the way people voted.
"When I talked to some of the people in the city, they didn't vote because they didn't think it mattered, they said there's an ordinance against it, we're not going to get it so we're not going to worry about it."
In the weeks following the judge's ruling, Lamar City Council voted not to use its authority to put the marijuana questions back on the ballot leaving it up to the community re-submit a petition application.
A new campaign turned in a new petition question earlier this week and is actively collecting signatures.
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