Cripple Creek Divided Over Legal Weed

Residents and business operators speak their mind on retail marijuana

~ by Rick Langenberg ~

When it comes to legalizing retail marijuana in Cripple Creek, it’s still unclear if town leaders should roll the dice in this gaming town.  

Last week, the first-ever public council meeting on opening the door for future cannabis shops and clubs in Cripple Creek generated a large crowd, sparking vastly different opinions among local residents, out-of-town folks and future cannabis entrepreneurs.

As a result, the city council must now evaluate one of the city’s more controversial issues and decide what course it should take regarding legal weed, or if the matter should go before the voters. One fact remains certain:  the subject of legal marijuana in Cripple Creek is sparking a lively debate.

Proponents, including an area businessman interested in starting a local cannabis club, touted the idea of opening the local door for legal marijuana as a great step for the town economically, and a good way to boost the tourism base. Moreover, cannabis advocates say the industry is growing and is gaining wide acceptance nationwide.  

Opponents, including key school district representatives, are raising a red flag and fear that future retail marijuana shops and clubs could trigger more marijuana use among younger kids and bring a bad clientele to the town. They are urging caution and want the town to continue its current “no reefer shops in Cripple Creek, period,” stand. 

These mixed opinions are shared by Cripple Creek Police Chief Mike Rulo. “This is a dicey issue,” said Rulo, following nearly an hour of divisive commentary regarding legal marijuana last Wednesday. “We have learned lessons (from the passage of Amendment 64, the state’s pro-marijuana law).

If the council decides to open the marijuana doors, he urged the elected leaders to devise a good ordinance with clear guidelines.

These same views were echoed by Manitou Springs Police Chief Joe Ribeiro, who provided probably the most objective take of the evening. Manitou Springs has been cited as good model to follow, if Cripple Creek opts to legalize retail cannabis businesses.

“The business model has been successful,” said Ribeiro.  He said the small handful of medical and retail operators in Manitou Springs are very “responsible corporate citizens.” In addition, he admitted that the tax revenue generated from marijuana businesses has been significant. Ribeiro admitted that Manitou could have found itself in a big financial hole if it wasn’t for the extra marijuana-related tax money that boosted sales tax revenue by nearly 60 percent a year.

On the downside, he mentioned concerns over people driving under the influence of drugs, an aspect of marijuana enforcement that is still posing challenges for law officers. And he said there was an increase in teens smoking pot when Manitou opted to have legal cannabis shops, but stated that this trend is now slowing down.

If Cripple Creek opts to follow in Manitou Springs’ footsteps, Ribeiro urged town leaders to craft a well-though-out ordinance. “Make it tight and regimented,” said the police chief.  “Start small,” added Ribeiro, who said the town could always loosen up its marijuana ordinance after cannabis businesses open their doors.

Just say no

But during last week’s hearing, many residents and school officials want the council to keep the marijuana doors completely shut. They contend the town already has its share of kids and families with problems.

“I would ask that you not open that (legal marijuana) door right now,” said Dennis Peck, the pastor of the Cripple Creek Baptist Church, and a former council member. Peck, who provides services for many individuals in need, fears that by opening up more opportunities for easier access to drugs like marijuana, it could create more problems and make it tougher for people and groups to assist troubled individuals.

Several other residents echoed similar concerns. “I think it would be a terrible mistake,” said resident Jerry Englehart, a familiar speaker at council meetings.      

In addition, several youth and RE-1 District school representatives also spoke strongly against the plan to end the city’s anti-marijuana prohibition. “You are attracting a whole different crowd,” said CC Parks and Recreation Director Connie Dodrill. If the council is searching for a new revenue source, then maybe it should revisit lobbying for the passage of a lodging tax. “That is a better way to go,” said Dodrill.  A lodging levy proposal, though, was defeated by Cripple Creek voters last November quite convincingly.  

Carrie Wilson, a school district counselor, stated that the RE-1 district already has statistics indicating that local kids are way about the state average in the consumption of marijuana and other drug-related trends. She sees these problems only getting worse if the city legalizes retail marijuana.

However, the idea of legalizing pot, or at least opening the door, definitely has its supporters. “Let us make money together,” said Dr. John Jones of Colorado Springs, who is interested in moving to Cripple Creek with his family and starting a cannabis club or retail outlet. “I love this community. I want to help this town succeed.”

Jones, a familiar face at recent council meetings, cited the fact that the industry is growing rapidly and is here to stay. Moreover, he believes it is important that Cripple Creek receives its fair share of the pie. He noted that pot tax money statewide has exceeded the $212 million mark on an annual basis.

Another marijuana entrepreneur, RJ Seres, also believes the town has a great opportunity and one that would blend well with its recreation-based gaming economy. “We will all benefit,” said Seres. “We could be a positive example for Colorado.”

“I think it is a wonderful thing to do,” said Meghan Fishencora, who represented a medical marijuana dispensary in Divide. She cited the health benefits of the industry.

Another local resident maintained that retail marijuana could help the town with its ailing economy, with many struggling families.    

What’s Next?

According to Cripple Creek attorney Lee Phillips, the council has the option of passing an ordinance that ends the current prohibitions against marijuana regarding the retail, medical and cultivation business aspects of cannabis, or it can just address certain restrictions; or the council can do nothing and maintain the current status quo law. Another possibility is to refer the issue to the voters, or wait until the next municipal election  in November 2017. If the council decides to change its current marijuana restrictions, city voters probably will have to cast tallies on the tax implications of marijuana due to the requirements of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights law.

And to make pot matters more complex, if the council opts to do nothing, proponents of the pro-cannabis movement could initiate their own citizens’ petition, which could force a vote on the issue.

To help move the process forward, Phillips presented the council with a draft marijuana ordinance, based on what other communities are doing that have opened the door for retail marijuana. He cited one community he represents in Park County that agreed to allow retail and medicinal shops, but not cannabis cultivation centers or clubs.

The local laws strongly vary across Colorado.  Amendment 64, passed by voters in Colorado in 2014, permits adults to consume and grow a limited amount of recreational marijuana, but doesn’t allow any public consumption areas. It also permits municipalities and counties to opt-out from allowing these businesses in their communities.

In the Pikes Peak region, Manitou Springs is the only jurisdiction that permits retail marijuana. But that’s not the case in many other parts of the state, including Pueblo, Denver, ski resort areas and in the Black Hawk/Central City gaming towns.