Cripple Creek Council Rejects Pro-Marijuana Citizens Initiative

Stage Set for Local Vote on Cannabis Operations; Tax Issues Still Pending

Rick Langenberg

Opponents of an effort to legalize retail marijuana outlets in the Cripple Creek gaming community won a preliminary battle last week.

But the big question: Will they win the overall war over the issue of opening the door for recreational and medical cannabis operations in the Teller high country.

The voters of Cripple Creek will have the final say on whether the gaming community will  become the first town in Teller County to legalize marijuana outlets on a limited scale, based on the results of a successful ballot petition drive.

The Cripple Creek City Council, following staunch public comment regarding the potential  impacts of a pro-marijuana citizens’ initiative , voted 3-1 with one abstention tally to reject  a proposed ordinance that would have reversed current prohibitions against marijuana operations. If they had said “yes,” the issue may not have required a local vote.

But by taking this action, the issue will be automatically referred to the voters this November, according to City Attorney Erin Smith. The attorney, just prior to the vote, told the council that the citizen-initiated ordinance met the petition signature and deadline requirements. However, she stated that it didn’t meet the constitutional requirements associated with the Taxpayer Bill of Rights provisions, with its proposed 5 percent excise levy. “It does not comply with state law,” warned Smith.

Another legality In questions deals with the petition’s call for 25 percent of the extra tax revenue to be earmarked for advertising and marketing of adult-related entertainment and recreation in Cripple Creek.  This aspect of the measure has been a big selling point among supporters due to city cutbacks in the promotional arena.

Regardless of these technical legal hurdles, the attorney stated that the citizens petition could be voted on regarding the potential licensing of  future marijuana establishments and operations.  She stated the city still had time to craft language to address the tax issues, associated with the marijuana petition, and refer them to the voters this November. As a result, citizens in Cripple Creek could be casting tallies on three ballot issues this November. Besides a marijuana legalization matter and related tax issue, voters will decide if they want to raise the overall sales tax by a penny.

Not the Image We Want

During last week’s council  meeting, Teller elected leaders, similar to earlier comments made at a commissioners meeting, voiced  strong opposition against the pro-marijuana measure.

First up to bat was Teller County Commission Chairman Dan Williams, who reminded the council of the strong support offered by county leaders in assisting the Cripple Creek community and the casino operators during the pandemic, and specifically, in trying to reopen the gaming establishments and end COVID restrictions on capacity limits.

But when it came to legalizing marijuana, Williams said they can’t stand with the Cripple Creek community in this pro-marijuana petition effort. “It will fundamentally change our home,” said the commission chairman. Moreover, he stated that it would create an invasion of impacts that the county is already having trouble addressing.

But like many civic leaders, he expressed concerns over the image this would create for the region. He sees retail marijuana shops clashing  with the area’s family atmosphere, and the desire to bring  back more traditional events. Williams believes there are other avenues for the city to obtain needed revenue to operate. “Is that what we want to show our kids?” questioned Williams, in raising concerns about the new image for the town under legalizing pot shops. “It is doubtful.”

And once again Teller County Sheriff Jason Mikesell, garbed in full uniform, didn’t’ t hold back in voicing strong opposition to the measure.

Mikesell maintained that the county and the city did not have the resources to grapple with retail marijuana. He said it would lead to a big increase in drug users and pave the way for a more dangerous element invading the community. “We don’t have the resources here. There are a lot of issues.”

And he sees more problems occurring on the public health side too.

Commissioner Erik Stone urged the council to deny the petition and to force a citizens vote on the initiative. “Let the case be made there,” said the commission vice-chairman. He cited the mental health problems this would create. “We struggle right now to provide services.,” said Stone.

During their final deliberations, the council, at the request of Smith, didn’t comment too much.   She urged them to make an up or down verdict. If they voted “nay,” then the attorney stated that a full ballot proposal would appear at their following meeting. She also hinted that the city would draft a tax-related question pertaining to this issue.

Most leaders complied with the attorney’s request and didn’t make any verbal comments.

The one exception involved the stand of Mayor Pro Tem Tom Litherland.

Litherland at the objection of  Smith, sought to stay on the sidelines and wanted to abstain from the tally altogether. He said this is the first time he took this action in nearly two terms as a council member. “I think it is a mess,” said Litherland in commenting on the proposed marijuana measure. “Five percent is insane,” he added in regards to the low level of the excise tax.

Smith urged him to cast an official “yea or nay” vote on the measure, but Litherland stated he didn’t have too, based on Robert Rules of Order.

The measure will once again be headed before the council at its next meeting, scheduled for Aug.17. At that time, a full ballot question will get prepared. The council also may take a stab at compiling a tax-related measure to meet the TABOR requirements.

The specific amount in revenue this issue could generate is still in question.  In an earlier meeting, the commissioners cited $500,000 a year in extra money for the city, based on preliminary projections.

Pro-Marijuana Campaign Moving Forward

Proponents of the pro-marijuana movement say they are hedging  their bets on voter approval.

To date, the pro-marijuana group, endorsed by the local casino association, has maintained a low-key style and has not commented at public meetings regarding the benefits of their plan.

“We believe we have a lot of silent support for this initiative,” said Kyle Blakely, the campaign organizer for the pro-marijuana effort, who is the registered agent for the group.

Blakely, who attended last week’s meeting, said their group wasn’t surprised or disappointed by the council action to deny their proposed ordinance. “We were kind of expecting that. We were planning on preparing for a local vote all along and having this issue decided by the citizens of Cripple Creek. We are ready to move forward.”

He said their campaign has generated strong support due to the possibility of diversifying the economy and making Cripple Creek more competitive. Proponents say Cripple Creek is one of the few tourist and entertainment towns in Colorado that doesn’t permit retail marijuana.

And when it comes to the social-related impacts, Blakely doesn’t see a potential big increase in cannabis users. “People who use cannabis now already do so,” said the pro-cannabis campaign spokesman.

In fact, he cites statistics indicating that 20 percent of household in the country current use some type of cannabis product.

According to Blakely, the next phase of their campaign will involve convincing local voters to support their initiative. They also plan on doing a voter registration drive to get more supporters onboard.

Opponents of the initiative also are gearing up for an active campaign in what many are predicting could become one of the town’s more contested ballot votes.

The issue of legalizing retail marijuana  in Cripple Creek isn’t new, though. This topic has been discussed for the last several years. But it wasn’t until recently that an actual pro-cannabis petition drive was orchestrated.