Q&A: Colorado Municipal Marijuana Experts
Editor’s note: The following excerpts were taken from a recorded interview with local law enforcement and elected officials.
It’s been a whirlwind year for the Summit County officials tasked with making sense of Colorado’s volatile — and groundbreaking — new marijuana industry.
Look at Airport Road in Breckenridge: The mile-long strip is now home to three marijuana dispensaries that saw upwards of $6 million in total sales during 2014 – a jump of nearly 300 percent over 2013. In February, Backcountry Cannabis Club joined its competitors after voters decided they weren’t ready for retail dispensaries on Main Street. And for more than a year, CNN cameras were rolling in the council chambers and along town sidewalks to capture BCC’s highs and lows for its documentary series, “High Profits.”
Through it all, local police and elected officials have worked behind the scenes to give legal, legitimate businesses a chance to succeed – no matter where officials stand on the touchy subject of legalizing a Schedule I narcotic. Look again at Airport Road: Breckenridge held countless council meetings and compiled immaculate tax records to categorize a brand-new type of retail, “weedtail,” all while cannabis products remained illegal beyond state lines.
And year two is already here. Rocky Mountain Marijuana sat down with elected officials, law enforcement personnel and ordinary citizens to hear their thoughts on Colorado’s great experiment — and what it means for Summit County.
Rocky Mountain Marijuana: Talk about the first year of legal marijuana. How did it go for the Town of Breckenridge, and how did it go for the county as a whole? And I know that’s a large, loaded question.
Wendy Wolf (Breckenridge Town Council member): I’ll speak philosophically for the town and Shannon can speak more to the law enforcement side, but by and large, I think it went well… We had to learn everything, from how to establish the rules and regulations around marijuana, where you can smoke and can’t smoke, and we had to learn a lot about the whole edibles side of it, which I think is still a huge learning curve.
Shannon Haynes (Breckenridge Police Chief): I would agree with Wendy. I think things have gone really well, and that’s in large part due to the thoughtfulness on the part of the council and town prior to the legalization of recreational marijuana. We were very forward thinking in Breckenridge, much more so, I think, than a lot of other communities when it came to setting regulations prior to legalization… We also had the benefit of having medical marijuana and decriminalized marijuana a few years back, so we already had this on our radar, and we did an awful lot of education prior to Jan. 1. I think all of those things have played a part in helping with a smooth transition and not having many criminal (or) public safety issues.
RMMJ: Has legal marijuana highlighted any other social issues, especially issues that are a constant struggle in Summit County?
Shannon Haynes: We’ve had some crimes associated with marijuana use. That’s not a big surprise. After marijuana became legal, we found we had an increase in the number of medical calls associated with edibles. Although we had partnered with the dispensaries, the establishments, to educate on their end, we were doing a whole lot of education on the PD side… Some of those (dispensaries) had information about edibles, but once it’s out the door, it doesn’t always play out in the end.
Karn Stiegelmeier (Summit County commissioner): I think some of our bigger issues have been in the arena of reaching out to the public and getting the information as clearly as possible to not only our residents, but also our visitors, so that we avoid law enforcement issues… Our role is serving public health for the entire county, so that’s where a lot of our efforts, aside from coming up with regulation, have been focused. By far, we still have very significant issue with alcohol and violence and assaults related to alcohol. We’re putting a lot of effort into the marijuana education and outreach, but again, by far our biggest issues are still alcohol. Marijuana use is dwarfed in terms of true impacts as compared to alcohol.
Shannon Haynes: I do think in a way it is overshadowing other issues. I do also believe we can target all these types of issues in messaging and education. I think some folks have felt that people who use marijuana won’t drink alcohol. We don’t see that.
RMMJ: When it comes to policy making, especially for something that’s brand new like this, was it intimidating to be faced with a blank slate? Or did it never feel like a blank slate?
Karn Stiegelmeier: In terms of coming up with regulations, we worked together with all the towns, countywide, to make sure we were as consistent as possible so it wasn’t confusing… I’ve sat through more marijuana education (and) marijuana policy meetings than just about anything else in the past few years, so in some ways it was a blank slate, but we did have a lot of background and people trying to lay it out as clearly as possible… I think one of the most interesting conversations around policy is, “What is public?” We had a lot of conversation about decks, about private property. What if it’s right next to somebody else’s deck who doesn’t want that smoke?
Wendy Wolf: And that’s just not an issue for marijuana, by the way.
Shannon Haynes: It’s taken up a lot of folk’s time in Breckenridge, and we were even ahead of the bell curve on policy development because we used a lot of our medical marijuana policies to fashion our recreational policies. Other than some tweaks along the way — conversations about what is public, do we want people on balconies, how do we handle those things — it was very similar to medical.
RMMJ: During the marijuana on Main Street vote, why do you believe so many community members were interested in what was going to happen with downtown dispensaries?
Jerry Dziedzic (spokesman, Breckenridge for Thoughtful Marijuana): There has been strong opposition to marijuana on Main Street since the latest discussions began in June. We have GoBreck data, we have Engage Breck data that show a clear majority was opposed to marijuana on Main Street. Breck for Thoughtful Marijuana conducted its own survey that showed similar results, and then we had a vote, and remarkably the data lines up pretty well… There was a remark in your report about Vail, and Vail voted strongly in favor of Amendment 64, as did Breckenridge, but that’s a different question than, “Do we want marijuana on Main Street?” and “Do we want marijuana in our town?”
Wendy Wolf: There is a breakout (map of Breckenridge voters) that shows where they live and how they voted. There was no resounding “yes” or “no” from any area. The numbers were very evenly spread across the community, from all neighborhoods, who said “no.” It was a pretty clear message that this community wants the town to go slow in developing retail marijuana, particularly on Main Street.
Jerry Dziedzic: The town’s economy rests on visitors. We’re leading the nation in liberalizing marijuana laws, and a lot of our customers come from states that have not yet liberalized marijuana laws, and we just don’t know how they’re going to react.
RMMJ: Visitors who come here aren’t familiar with marijuana, or at least not a marijuana industry. How do you combat those misperceptions, and how will you continue to educate in the future?
Karn Stiegelmeier: Curiosity is everywhere. People want to know what’s happening (and) what’s going on. Once you talk to them for a while or they actually come visit, they say, “It’s really not that different, it’s not that big of a deal, people were doing this 30 years ago and it’s not overwhelming,” or at least that’s what I hear.
Shannon Haynes: But I think there’s a big misconception on the part of guests. They have this perception that everybody in Colorado is smoking weed, and if you come to Breck, you’ll stand out on Blue River Plaza and every person will have a joint in their hand. I think they’re surprised when they get here and that’s not the fact… We’ve allowed the folks who want to come here and partake to partake in a legal way that doesn’t interfere with the folks who don’t. When we started down this road, that was one of the most important things for me and my staff.
Jerry Dziedzic: We had a fatal slide over in Clear Creek County, and I ask myself, “Do you want to be the avalanche tester?” And I keep coming back to that with Breck — we just have to let this thing have more time. For all of the hard work people have put into this, studying the question, coming up with rules and regulations, there are still unknowns. We don’t know what they are, and that’s why we want to go slow… Better that someone else goes first and you see if the avalanche sweeps over them.
Wendy Wolf: And I think there will be many things to learn we don’t know today. In one year’s time, I don’t think we have still found all the trip wires. I think the business model itself will undergo changes… I think all of that, as Jerry says, gives us all the reason to continue going slowly, keep thinking about this, and bring the right people together. But I know this is a new norm, that marijuana was made legal in this state and we now have a year of experience to show for it. It’s hard to imagine going backwards from here, but I would like to see us go forward very wisely.
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