With seven cannabis dispensaries in Aspen, and another one or two that could open after getting the requisite licenses, City Council on Tuesday broached the subject of capping the total number that can operate here.
When marijuana was legalized in 2012, the state gave local municipalities broad discretion in regulating the hours dispensaries can operate, where they can be located and the total number of such businesses.
Aspen doesn’t limit the number of shops in town, and dispensaries sold over $8 million worth of cannabis and pot-related items in 2015.
But Mayor Steve Skadron said he believes pot entrepreneurs, with their ability to pay higher rents than restaurants and other businesses, are making it harder for locally serving outlets to survive. He also agreed with Councilman Art Daily, who said he doesn’t want to see the downtown core saturated with one particular industry.
“Walking around Aspen, I am concerned about the proliferation of the shops,” Skadron said.
Ideally, he would let the free market dictate the number of shops.
“But I disagree with the assertion that the free market is always good and right, and government regulation is always bad,” Skadron said. “I’m reaching my own level of tolerance” on how many dispensaries there are in town.
An appropriate retail mix should be the goal, Skadron said.
Aspen attorney Lauren Maytin, who said she represents numerous people in the cannabis industry, disagreed in what became a lively discussion.
Aspen’s pot shops hire locals and sell to locals, she said, arguing against a cap. The high bar to successfully running a cannabis operation in Aspen “creates a natural barrier” against the weed industry’s possible over-proliferation in town, she said.
It’s virtually impossible to find suitable real estate or a landlord willing to rent to a pot proprietor, for example, she said.
Competition is also good for consumers, Maytin said.
Skadron, though, brought up Vail cannabis entrepreneur Peter Knobel, who is trying to build a massive retail empire. How would a small shop like Funky Mountain Threads compete against such a conglomerate?
“It’s very hard to succeed in Aspen, you need tremendous financial resources,” he said.
Jeff Wertz, also a local attorney and a member of the city’s marijuana and liquor licensing authority, said strict regulations will help to curb the number. A cap would also lead to a monopoly for the current dispensary owners, he said.
Both he and Maytin said alcohol is the town’s real problem; City Clerk Linda Manning said there are 89 liquor licenses in Aspen.
City officials express concerns about the pot industry, but then allow alcohol to be consumed on public property in the middle of the Hyman Avenue mall, Maytin said.
“I am floored by the amount of alcohol flowing through our streets,” she said.
Wertz said the city should be working on how to open a cannabis club, so locals and visitors have a place to safely consume their purchases. It’s illegal to smoke in public and in hotel rooms here.
“That is something we have to address,” he said. “I think a cap is a solution in search of a problem.”
Councilman Adam Frisch said he agreed there needs to be some sort of “release valve” so cannabis can be consumed comfortably. He said he believes the current number of dispensaries is appropriate, adding that visiting friends neither see nor smell marijuana when they’re here. But if more pot begins ending up in the hands of adolescents, he may change his mind on a cap.
Councilman Bert Myrin, picking up on a comment by Daily about ground-floor real estate offices being limited in the commercial core, suggested something similar could work for pot shops on the pedestrian malls. Myrin said he wouldn’t support a cap on licenses.
The discussion was simply the next step in the city grappling with a new paradigm.
“There’s just a new game in town that’s pricing out” other businesses, Frisch said. “The question we could ask is how many is too many?”