Pitkin County’s elected officials on Wednesday approved licensing regulations that pave the way for the upper valley’s first retail marijuana shops, despite opposition from one commissioner who said there remain too many outstanding issues.
The 3-to-1 vote was on first reading, with final approval set for Feb. 12. The proposed ordinance covers the cultivation, manufacture, sale and testing of retail cannabis in unincorporated Pitkin County.
Commissioner George Newman cast the lone opposing vote, saying he would not support the new regulations, dubbing them “premature.”
He said the state Legislature, after the passage of Amendment 64, essentially passed on to municipalities and local governments the responsibility on how to deal with various issues.
Newman suggested the county wait a year before approving rules for retail cannabis sales, noting concerns at the Aspen airport, Aspen Valley Hospital and the Aspen School District.
“I think it would be valuable to have some good community dialogue and hear from both sides of the table,” he said.
Citing moratoriums in Eagle and Garfield counties, Newman predicted an influx of applications for retail shops and grow sites in Pitkin County.
“I’m unsure why we’re putting unincorporated Pitkin County [in a position] as a guinea pig,” he said.
Three neighborhood caucuses, Fryingpan, Snowmass/Capitol Creek and Emma, last fall voted against allowing retail pot stores and grow sites. The proposed ordinance says a license for a retail establishment will not be issued in those areas for one year, though the residents’ votes were only advisory.
Commissioner Michael Owsley said that while he can understand the need for a one-year moratorium for those neighborhoods, he still believes that adhering to their votes “balkanizes” the county.
“I think after [a year] we should be united in all county regulation,” he said.
Newman disagreed, saying the caucuses have limited home sizes and commercial uses as they “determine their own destiny.”
Along with Owsley, Commissioners Rachel Richards and Steve Child supported moving forward with the ordinance language, which has been discussed since July.
Failing to do so would offer “tacit support” for continued black-market sales, said Richards.
“I can’t support that direction,” she said, noting that multiple county work sessions and community outreach have been conducted.
Telling visitors who expect to be able to buy legal marijuana here that “Pitkin County would like you to buy it on the black market” would support the prohibition that Colorado residents in 2012 voted to overturn, Richards said.
Owsley said the county is faced with a challenge, one that other counties don’t want to face.
“Community dialogue is not shut off by us approving the regulations,” he said.
The commissioners have emergency ordinance powers that could be implemented if serious problems arise, “so let’s go ahead and face that challenge,” Owsley said. “Let’s show other counties how this is done.”
Child also voted for the ordinance, saying that a few decades ago, the county board tackled thorny growth-management issues. That process led to a ground-breaking land-use code that is widely credited with protecting the valley’s resources and views.
The land-use code has been tweaked many times since to improve it, and the same can happen with the proposed ordinance, Child said.
Commissioner Rob Ittner was absent.
One part of the draft ordinance, which covers facility requirements, requires a pot shop’s employees to be “familiar” with the products they are selling.
County Attorney John Ely said this was implemented after a conversation he had with Sheriff Joe DiSalvo. According to Ely, DiSalvo is concerned that visitors, inexperienced with both the altitude and the potency of what their eating, smoking or vaporizing, will suffer unintended consequences.
If not enough time has passed, a person could take “another bite of the gummy bear or the brownie” — products that may be much stronger than anticipated, Ely said. That, in turn, could lead to increased emergency calls.
The idea behind this portion of the ordinance is to have knowledgeable employees who can tell a patron how high they can expect to get, when the effect will take hold and how long it will last.
Products, for labeling purposes, have to be tested anyway, and passing potency and timing information onto customers would be a benefit, Ely said.
Owsley opposed another proposed section that would require pot shop workers to take training similar to what bartenders and restaurant servers receive. Called Training for Intervention Procedures (TIPS), the widely used system is designed to ensure the responsible sale and consumption of booze.
Liquor store employees are not required to have TIPS training, Owsley said. There also is no structure in place that could offer such training for pot shops, he added.
“I’ve never had a bartender tell me the potency of a drink, nor have I asked the potency of a drink,” he said.
Commissioners said they will likely require stores to display a sign or pass out a flyer with each sale, or both, to remind customers about Colorado law. The reminders would include that it’s illegal to drive while under the influence of marijuana and to share cannabis with someone under 21 years old.