Garfield County bans recreational marijuana businesses

by Nelson Harvey, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

The Garfield County Commissioners say often that government regulation shouldn’t impede economic development, but on Monday they made an exception to that rule for the recreational marijuana industry.

The commissioners voted by a 2-1 margin to ban recreational marijuana grows, product manufacturing facilities, testing facilities and retail stores in unincorporated areas of Garfield County.

The ban will prevent 10 current medical marijuana growers now operating in the county from converting their businesses to supply the recreational market. It also could force all future recreational marijuana grow sites in the county into the town limits of municipalities like Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and New Castle, which have signaled that they will allow those businesses.

The ban also comes in spite of a vote by 56.8 percent of Garfield County residents in favor of Amendment 64, the statewide initiative passed in November 2012 that legalized the use, cultivation and sale of limited quantities of marijuana for recreational purposes among adults 21 years old or older. 

“The board finds the operation of marijuana establishments provided for in Amendment 64 presents an immediate threat to the public health, safety and welfare by making marijuana more readily available in the community and facilitating its recreational use,” reads the ordinance containing the ban. It also points out that Amendment 64 violates federal law, which classifies marijuana as an illegal drug.

Commissioners John Martin and Mike Samson voted in favor of the ban, while Commissioner Tom Jankovsky opposed it.

Samson based his support for the measure largely on the notion that pot legalization poses a threat to young people in the county. As a former administrator and teacher at Rifle High School, he said, “I saw the dangers and the terrible consequences of alcohol and drug use. My friends and foes alike assure me that marijuana use is not good for young people.”

Before casting the dissenting vote, Jankovsky said that despite his own opposition to Amendment 64 he couldn’t defy Garfield County voters.

“This is a very strong indication from our voters on how they want us to move forward,” he said of the Amendment 64 vote tally. “I feel that because of that vote I need to take a different look at this.”

Jankovsky also said he didn’t feel comfortable forcing all recreational pot grow operations into municipalities in the county.

“I don’t think that is the correct place for those to be,” he said.

Martin cast the deciding vote in favor of the ban. In his years as a Glenwood Springs police officer, Martin said, he became convinced that marijuana is a “gateway drug” that leads users down a path to more serious substances.

“I’ve seen families, lives and careers destroyed, and they all say it was a temptation, it was a dare, it was moms, dads [using drugs],” he said. “I would like to have clean, healthy minds and bodies for all our children.”

The ban was approved in spite of critical public testimony Monday from four Garfield County medical marijuana businesses owners.

Lauren Maytin, an Aspen-based attorney who represents medical marijuana businesses in Garfield county, told commissioners that the majority of Garfield County voters apparently don’t agree that recreational marijuana poses a public health threat. 

“Your constituents voted for recreational marijuana,” she said. “They do not feel it poses an immediate threat to their safety, their health, or their welfare.”

According to an analysis from the nonprofit group Colorado Counties, Inc., 24 Colorado counties have enacted ordinances banning the recreational sales and cultivation of marijuana, while nine have voted to allow them, two have passed temporary moratoriums and 29 counties haven’t yet finalized their rules — including Pitkin County and Aspen.

The sitting Garfield County commissioners have never taken a particularly favorable view of marijuana in any form, whether medical or recreational, and they continued to express their skepticism about the industry on Monday.

“In many ways, I think it’s a farce,” said Samson of the medical marijuana industry. “I think it was just a guise to get to where we are now in Colorado.”

The only marijuana businesses currently allowed in unincorporated Garfield County are medical grow operations — county voters outlawed both retail shops and marijuana infused product producers in a 2010 vote.

In the past, commissioners have imposed restrictions on medical marijuana businesses — in July of 2012 they passed a rule preventing medical marijuana grow operations in unincorporated areas of the county from supplying dispensaries in other Colorado counties, which affected operators who grew their pot in Garfield County and sold it out of dispensaries in Aspen.

The new ban on recreational businesses won’t affect the medical marijuana industry, except by preventing medical businesses from diversifying into the recreational realm. The ban does not prohibit the cultivation of industrial hemp, which was legalized with the passage of Amendment 64.

Anyone caught violating the ban on recreational pot businesses will pay a hefty fine of $1,000 per day until their business is shut down.

nelson@nelsonharvey.com