Summit County opens 10th marijuana establishment; how many is too many?
Dillon’s third retail marijuana store celebrated its grand opening on Saturday, with a ribbon cutting in front of the newly renovated industrial building. This marked the first retail store for Altitude Organic Cannabis, which has three medical dispensaries in Colorado Springs.
“We’ve always had Summit in our hearts, because we all love skiing,” director of retail operations Aaron Bluse said. “It seemed to be a natural fit. Once that building became available, it all merged together pretty seamlessly.”
Bluse has grand aspirations for the new location, including an educational center and a drive through in the back.
“We live in a dynamic place,” he added. “We need to make sure it’s healthy for people, the planet and business. …we try to balance all of those things together and have something we can really, truly be proud of.”
Dillon approved retail licenses for Altitude Organic Cannabis and Native Roots last summer, located on Little Beaver Trail. With a total of three stores in town, Dillon put a moratorium into place for retail marijuana licenses through September 2016. The town opened its first dispensary, Alpenglow Premium Cannabis, in February 2015, followed by a six-month moratorium.
“How much is enough, you know? We only have two liquor stores, and we have three marijuana stores,” town engineer Dan Burroughs said in a previous town council meeting. “I’m not sure the market would support more than that.”
With the town’s current zoning restrictions, Burroughs said there would be 26 remaining lots for marijuana-related businesses, located near the Dillon Ridge Marketplace and on Little Beaver Trail.
Per the town’s current zoning laws, marijuana-related businesses must be at least 300 feet away from residential areas, churches, parks or open space. They must also be at least 1,000 feet away from schools, college campuses, childcare facilities or rehabilitative institutions.
These restrictions are tougher than those for liquor stores, though there are currently just two of those in Dillon, as well. Under town code, alcoholic beverages or spirits may not be sold within 500 feet of a school, but these restrictions do not apply to vendors with a license.
Compared with the rest of the county, Breckenridge has four dispensaries located on Airport Road, Frisco currently has two and Silverthorne just has one. As a whole, Summit County has fewer dispensaries per capita than Denver, perhaps due to Denver’s more free-market approach.
“Everybody has a dispensary. The things that separate it are the brand itself, what’s behind the brand and the people,” Bluse said. “We’re trying to be more long-term oriented.”
Though most Summit County communities are locked in with marijuana moratoriums, local leaders can’t help but ask how many more businesses would open if left unchecked. According to a 2014 study by the Marijuana Policy Group, the estimated demand for Colorado adult residents was 121.4 metric tons of marijuana for the year, and for visitors, 8.9 metric tons. Adam Orens, a founding partner with the Marijuana Policy Group, said that demand has only grown since the study was released.
“What we’re seeing preliminarily, for the states that have gone legal for recreational use, the prevalence of use is rising,” he said. “If you take a product, make it safer and more homogenous, the demand for it will rise.”
However, he estimated that Colorado’s marijuana industry will not sustain the booming growth seen in the last two years.
“As more states legalize, the novelty will wear off,” Orens said.
According to the Market Demand Study, since retail marijuana sales took off in 2014, sales multiplied significantly in smaller, tourism-driven communities. Summit, for instance, saw a 162-percent increase in sales since the legalization of retail, while Front Range communities saw a more modest increase of 15 to 19 percent.
Since medical marijuana cards are not available to out-of-state visitors, the study argues that part of the increase can be chalked up to tourist purchases. In 2014, for Colorado’s metro areas, an estimated 44 percent of retail sales were purchases by out-of-state visitors, while in heavily-visited mountain communities, the study estimated visitors accounted for about 90 percent of retail sales.
“For someone wanting to open a retail store or vertically-integrated operation, your market is so much bigger,” Orens said. “In tourist communities like Summit County, you have a lot more freedom and flexibility with your pricing.”
Though the industry has grown much more competitive in the past two years, with smaller shops consolidating into larger chains, Orens noted that having neighboring dispensaries would not necessarily be a disadvantage.
“A critical mass of stores is not always a bad things,” he said. “The industry’s professionalizing like crazy.”
However, he also noted a shift toward mass-production over a more artisanal approach.
“It’s not about who grows the best cannabis,” Orens said. It’s about who can comply with all of the laws — who can comply with the state system the most efficiently, for the lowest cost.”
Bluse agreed the industry is shifting away from organic standards “110 percent.” With no FDA approval available, as cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, there is little incentive to avoid pesticide use or other inorganic chemical compounds.
“It’s much more cumbersome,” Bluse said.
Despite these challenges, and his business’s expansion over the past six years, Bluse said his company pushes to maintain standards that would be necessary for organic certification.
“There are honestly days where I question it, but we’ve never made the compromising bend to not stay true to it,” he said, adding that future changes to federal law, or new state regulations might create a more level playing field.
“It takes a village,” he paused, thanking friends and family. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
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