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County temporarily bans retail pot

By Shane Benjamin Herald staff writer

In the face of vocal opposition, La Plata County commissioners Tuesday approved a 16-month ban on retail marijuana.

The hearing drew opposition from at least three residents, including “Rasta Stevie” Smith, who blasted commissioners for ignoring the will of La Plata County residents who voted 62 percent to 38 percent last November to legalize marijuana.

After giving an impassioned speech, Smith exited the meeting room by kicking open the back door. He returned a few minutes later to listen to the remainder of the hearing but soon was escorted out by a sheriff’s deputy for speaking out of turn.

Commissioners voted 2-1 in favor of the ban.

Commissioners Bobby Lieb and Julie Westendorff said they were uncomfortable enacting marijuana regulations before the state finalizes its own rules. Doing so could create legal complications in the future, they said.

Commissioner Gwen Lachelt voted against the ban, saying existing businesses could operate under state rules once they take effect.

“I haven’t heard anything today that indicates we would have an enforcement issue,” she said.

Smith said commissioners have known for 10 months they need to enact marijuana regulations, yet they have done nothing to meet that deadline.

“I’m extremely disgusted with you guys,” he said. “You’ve totally blown off a voter mandate.”

In Colorado, one-third of municipalities have chosen to allow retail marijuana, one-third are on the fence about it, and one-third have opted out of allowing it because they are scared and “dumb rednecks,” he said.

“We’ve had medical marijuana for five years in Durango. What’s the problem?” Smith asked commissioners. “You’re supposed to regulate it like alcohol. It’s way less dangerous than alcohol, and you all know it.”

The county risks losing businesses to places that have regulations in place and are ready to go by the Oct. 1 deadline, he said.

“I’m kind of (angry) that I have to be here as a sole voice to remind you of what the voters asked you to do,” Smith said. “They didn’t ask you to postpone it. They didn’t ask you to (do) a moratorium and draw us two years down the road. They asked you to legalize marijuana for the production, sale and use.”

Lieb said the ban extends far enough into the future to give commissioners time to enact regulations without having to extend it, which upsets the public.

“My experience in this job is things don’t always go according to schedule, and very rarely do you come in ahead of schedule,” Lieb said.

Westendorff said the ban can be overturned as soon as commissioners enact suitable regulations. The ban, which is in place until Dec. 31, 2014, is a target, not a goal, she said.

In the meantime, she wants to hold public hearings to discuss proposed regulations. It was premature to have those conversations earlier this year before the state finalized its rules, she said.

Jonny Radding, co-owner of Durango Organics, the first medical marijuana grow operation to be licensed in the county, said he would like to supply recreational pot when the time arrives.

Government officials spent months, if not years, drafting guidelines for medical marijuana grow operations, and the same rules likely will be used to guide recreational marijuana, Radding said.

“We’re just not understanding the long timeline associated with it,” he said.

He added: “It just seems that the county should not want to push out some of the local businesses that have worked so hard to get to this point.”

Scott Holland, who also spoke in opposition to the ban, said existing grow owners have jumped through “hoops of fire” to get their operations up and running, and they have proved themselves to be upstanding businesspeople and residents.

He asked commissioners not to hurt them by delaying their ability to manufacture for retail marijuana distributors.

He thanked Smith for his “impassioned speech.”

“The truth is, you did have a mandate from the people, and you had a time frame of Oct. 1 to get these regulations set up and ready,” Holland said. “If this was private-sector work and you didn’t have your regulations in place by Oct. 1, you’d all be fired.”

Smith said business owners are ready to get started with recreational marijuana, but without a clear direction from the county, it’s difficult to make serious investments. Potential business owners will go elsewhere if the county begins delaying tactics, he said.

He asked commissioners to be forthcoming about whether they plan to support retail marijuana. If not, they should say so now rather than drag people along by enacting moratoriums, similar to what occurred with medical marijuana, Smith said.

All three commissioners said they intend to allow retail marijuana.

Smith encouraged commissioners to draw from other municipalities and counties that have adopted rules and will be ready by the Oct. 1 deadline rather than impose a ban.

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel at all, and I take major offense to you guys saying you have nothing to pattern yourself by,” he said. “You owe the voter populace to get your butts in high gear and get us some real numbers. ... Tell us what you really believe and stop hiding behind the moratorium.”

Smith accused commissioners of putting their agenda ahead of retail marijuana regulations.

“Name one of your agenda items that have more than a 60 percent mandate,” he said. “Name one.”

Westendorff said part of Amendment 64 allows counties to enact their own regulations, and that’s part of what voters approved.

“We recognize that when more than 60 percent of voters in the county voted in favor of this amendment, that meant people wanted some or all aspects of it,” she said.

Smith took special aim at Lieb.

“You can sit in the old world all you want, Bob, but we’re going to drag you into the new world. Figure it out, bro.”

After the meeting, Lieb declined to respond to personal attacks.

“Hopefully, his peers will have a sit-down with him because he’s not helping his cause when he behaves like that,” Lieb said.

It is the first time Lieb, the commission chairman, has tossed someone from a public meeting or has seen someone be removed from a commissioner meeting, he said.

Assistant County Manager Joanne Spina, who has been in county administration for about 20 years, said it happened before, but it’s “infrequent.”

Amendment 64 was approved in November 2012 and decriminalizes the personal cultivation, possession and use of marijuana for people 21 and older. It also authorizes state and local jurisdictions to adopt a regulatory framework to address retail sales.

The amendment also allows local governments to ban all retail sales within its jurisdiction, which is what happened last week in Bayfield.

Such a ban does not affect the personal cultivation or use of marijuana or the existing medical marijuana laws.

The county’s delay on retail marijuana is called a “ban” and not a “moratorium” because Amendment 64 uses the word ban to refer to a local government’s ability to prohibit sales, and a moratorium generally applies to land-use issues.

There are four different types of retail operations allowed under Amendment 64: a marijuana store, a testing facility, a manufacturing facility and a cultivation facility. Any one or all four can be banned.

State and local jurisdictions must begin accepting licensing applications by Oct. 1 if a ban has not been enacted. The state will meet the deadline.

The county has two licensed grow operations for medical marijuana with two more in the pipeline. It is likely that those businesses also would want to provide recreational marijuana but will be unable to do so until the ban has been lifted.

The city of Durango is scheduled next week to formally adopt a moratorium on retail operations that will extend until June 30, 2014.

“The city is doing the same bogus thing you bozos are doing,” Smith said.

Local medical marijuana operators said banning commercial cultivation until Dec. 31, 2014, gives operators outside the county an unfair advantage, because retail stores will rely upon them for supply.

Commissioners seemed receptive to that argument and indicated they would focus first on crafting cultivation regulations to prevent retail stores from having to go outside the county for their supply.

Licensed cultivators have asked to be grandfathered to allow them to provide for recreational uses, but county staff recommend against doing so because it could lead to legal problems once regulations are in place.

Retail suppliers would have to follow state rules – as they exist as of Oct. 1 – if the county didn’t ban marijuana or pass its own regulations beforehand. Commissioners worried that if they let state regulations guide local policy until they could enact their own regulations, that could allow retail operations to become grandfathered under state rules rather than county rules.


An earlier version of this story misstated Assistant County Manager Joanne Spina’s title.

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