Aspen City Council extends moratorium on new retail pot shops within city limits

by Dorothy Atkins, Special to the Aspen Daily News

Aspen City Council on Monday extended a moratorium on new retail marijuana shops within city limits.

Last year, the city enacted a law that allows only existing medical marijuana dispensaries to convert to retail pot stores in Aspen. The city moratorium was set to expire on Oct. 1 and after that, it would effectively open the market to any retail marijuana businesses that wanted to start a new shop in Aspen. Currently, there are two retail marijuana stores in Aspen — Silverpeak Apothecary and the Green Dragon. Council agreed to extend the moratorium until April 15, 2015.
During Monday’s work session, owners from both of Aspen’s retail marijuana stores spoke in favor of an extension.

If the city allows the moratorium to lapse, businesses outside of the valley, which don’t operate locally and have low overhead costs, will move in and take over the market, said Jordan Lewis, owner of  Silverpeak Apothecary, noting that land in Pitkin County is expensive.

“It’s not a level playing field, plain and simple,” Lewis said.

By protecting Aspen’s existing pot businesses, council would be protecting local jobs, Lewis said.

“How many local industries do we really have here?” Lewis asked council members. “Other than selling houses and skiing, which is seasonal, it’s not much.”

Pot shops are required by the state to grow 70 percent of the marijuana being sold, and both operations have grow operations in the valley. That state law is due to expire on Oct. 1.

Ron Radtke, owner of Green Dragon, said the city doesn’t have to ban all outside competition, but the local government should at least restrict where pot shops are allowed.
“Competition is good for everybody, but at the same time I don’t know if you want a store on every corner,” Radtke said.

Garrett Patrick, owner of STASH, which is located just outside of city limits at the Airport Business Center, said he would like the moratorium to lapse so he could have the option of moving into the city.

“I’m stuck in the county right now with a limited amount of customers and places to move,” Patrick said. “And I’ve invested just as much money as these other people.”

Patrick noted that he also had a grow operation in Pitkin County.

Mayor Steve Skadron said that what was being considered by council was a basic question of whether the government should regulate the industry by protecting some businesses or open the market to competition.

“It’s a classic free-market argument,” Skadron said.

Council members Dwayne Romero, Art Daily and Ann Mullins each responded that they prefer government be less involved in regulating local markets. Still, they agreed an extension was appropriate in this situation.

Romero, who described himself as “a guy who knows a lot about capital markets,” said he voted against legalizing marijuana when it went to a public vote in 2012.

“I have a deeper bias,” Romero said. “I’d rather see less of it.”

Daily said he would like to see the city figure out a way to restrict local retail marijuana shops by requiring them to grow their products locally even after the state law expires. Mullins said she generally doesn’t agree with the artificial support of the marketplace, but in this case it could work.

“This is one of those issues I could go either way on,” Mullins said.

Council member Adam Frisch did not attend the meeting.

Skadron said the extension should give the local businesses a leg up against competition when the market does open in the spring. By then, the industry will have become more mature, he said.

“My hope is that this is a sufficient amount of time,” he said.

Skadron asked staff to create the language regarding the moratorium’s extension in a way that would allow Patrick’s business to move within city limits.

Meanwhile, council continued a discussion on whether the city should allow private clubs where people can smoke marijuana to open in Aspen.

All three pot store owners said people need a place to go to consume cannabis, and many people are resorting to either consuming it in public or at their hotels.

Skadron said he would like to hear from the Aspen hotel community before making a decision regarding private marijuana clubs.