Writers on the Range: Marijuana stores get no respect
Writers on the Range
Cimarron, a ranching town of 1,000 in New Mexico, says it does not want a marijuana store. Residents cite the seaside town of Arcata in California where the Arcata Eye says people have finally had it because over 1,000 homes there have turned into “grow houses.” Crime has spiked, newcomers are protecting their stash with pit bulls and guns, and some of those grow houses in Arcata have caught fire because of inadequate wiring.
Meanwhile, Whitefish, an upscale Montana town, is being sued because it refuses to allow a pot store. Then there’s Ophir, a tiny Colorado town that wants to pump up its economy by using old greenhouses to produce enough marijuana to supply all of Colorado. Windsor, on the Colorado Front Range, has applications for five stores, Nederland, in the mountains west of Boulder, has six stores open and already doing business, and liberal Boulder has about 30, at least. Pot, it seems, is having a heyday – especially if you include Los Angeles, which reportedly has more marijuana outlets than it has Starbucks franchises.
I, for one, have supported legalizing marijuana for decades on the grounds that it is not a Schedule 1 drug like heroin or cocaine, and its illegal sales fuel the cartels that corrupt and kill elected officials, judges, the police and innocent people in Mexico.
But the problem marijuana has presented all along is that it is both a recreational drug and a source of medicine, and cities in the West can’t decide how to treat it. One bunch says stores should not be within 1,000 feet of a school or a church. Another bunch wants it to be handled by pharmacies. All of them agree that they want the money that would come from selling it to go to city or state coffers.
Cannabis sativa is a complicated plant. There are at least 66 different cannabinoids found in it along with a grab bag of other substances. Only a few are known for what they do to us. THC (delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol) gives you a buzz, while CBD (cannabidiol) takes that buzz away but does good things for convulsions and nausea. Some of the cannabinoids cause the munchies, some reduce the pressure in your eyeballs, and others act like aspirin and reduce inflammation.
As a recreational drug, marijuana is much safer than alcohol. An overdose causes the user to fall asleep, there is no fatal dose, being high does not lead to violent behavior and withdrawal does not provoke lethal convulsions. Of course, the plant packs as many tars and other nasty chemicals as a tobacco plant, and holding its unfiltered smoke in the lungs might be as carcinogenic as cigarette smoke. We won’t know the consequences of widespread regular use of pot until enough human guinea pigs do it long enough for lung complications to manifest themselves.
In any case, in January of 2000, 54 percent of Colorado’s voters approved Amendment 20 to the state Constitution authorizing the use of medical marijuana in small amounts for medically sick people. In Colorado, at least, it is clear that it is to be used medically, not recreationally. It strikes me that if this is the voter’s intent, then it should be connected with a pharmacy rather than a ganja cafe or a massage parlor. There is still, however, the problem that a marijuana bust by a federal law enforcement agent can lead to a felony conviction.
So there are three things you can do with marijuana: legalize it, decriminalize it or ignore it. Colorado decriminalized weed so having less than a half-ounce was a misdemeanor and got you a ticket. Very few people ever got tickets so I guess it means the law was ignored. What’s causing the uproar now is having marijuana sold publicly.
Here’s my take on tokes: I have no problem with marijuana being used as a recreational drug so long as nobody drives while under the influence. I also have no problem with it being considered a medicine. People are already gobbling up huge amounts of dietary supplements, and there’s no guarantee these supplements contain what they say they do or can fix what they claim to fix. And I have no problem with cities, states or proprietors of marijuana stores making some money selling it.
Pot is a fact of life and we might as well tax it to death.
Rob Pudim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Boulder, Colorado.
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A cheer for Interior Secretary Salazar’s new approach
By Thomas Power/Writers on the Range
As an economist, it startles me when representatives of the business community ignore basic economic relationships such as supply and demand. Yet oil and gas interests have been doing exactly that recently.
It is hard to believe that there is anyone in the country who does not know that we are in a deep recession. It has dramatically cut the demand for and, therefore, the price of most basic raw materials, especially energy. But the oil and gas industry keeps pretending that this has not happened and instead has been blaming Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for the decline in the leasing of and drilling on federally owned lands and the resulting job losses.
Oil and gas firms know better. Randy Teeuwen, spokesman for EnCana, North America’s largest oil and gas producer, characterized the current slowdown in drilling more accurately this past spring. He told the Pinedale Roundup in Wyoming that “We’re like most industries right now – banking, finance, auto industry, real estate. All the economic sectors are experiencing some downturn, and are sort of at the mercy of the national economy and the local economy.”
In June, EnCana announced that it would shut down large numbers of its producing natural gas wells in Canada and the United States until natural gas prices rose again. Other natural gas companies have done the same, as have most coal companies.
So it makes no sense to blame Secretary Salazar for the decline in interest in new federal oil and gas leasing. Blame the recession for causing the prices of oil, natural gas, and coal to tumble dramatically, by 40 to 70 percent between the summer of 2008 and the summer and fall of 2009. That is why there has been less enthusiasm among companies for leasing more federal lands for oil and gas development.
It is also why only 3,267 wells were drilled last year, even though the Obama administration’s BLM issued 4,487 drilling permits. Access to leases is simply not an issue these days for the oil and gas industry. Nationwide, over 65 percent of the on-shore oil and gas leases that industry held in 2008 were not being developed. These undeveloped leases cover a huge amount of land that’s mostly in the West – over 32.5 million acres.
On Jan. 6, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar introduced a new set of onshore oil and gas lease reforms, arguing that they will provide more economic certainty for the industry and increased savings for the taxpayer. Going slower, according to Salazar, will reduce the likelihood of legal battles. Only 1 percent of oil and gas leases were protested in 1998, he said, as opposed to 40 percent in 2008. Fewer protests mean fewer costs for the American taxpayer, because less money ends up going to help resolve protests and lawsuits. Reform will also provide more certainty for the industry, as companies will not end up bidding on leases that then turn out to be inaccessible due to unresolved protests.
Yet for some reason, we continue to hear industry arguing that reform of leasing policy will curb development of domestic resources.
Secretary Salazar has an enormous responsibility over the management of our public lands and our need for energy development. The current slowdown in oil and gas drilling is an opportune time to find the right balance between our need for fossil fuels, our continued development of renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and the long-term health and safety of our air, water and wildlife.
As Salazar recently put it, “Trade groups for the oil and gas industry need to understand they don’t own the public lands. Taxpayers do.”
He is right, and he needs to work to strike the right balance. After eight years of an energy policy highlighted by a tilt toward industry and an historic lack of oversight, it is perhaps understandable that oil and gas companies now resist a more balanced approach. Our nation is better served by a measured approach that reduces the boom-and-bust extremes the West has suffered through in the past. That’s especially true for those communities where resource extraction is occurring.
Thomas Power is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He has been an economics professor at the University of Montana for 40 years and is the author of six books on natural resource economics.
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Counties take steps to build a new energy economy
By Peter Runyon and Jim Starr/Writers on the Range
The November elections came and went without the hoopla of a year ago, but voters in western Colorado quietly approved measures that could set the stage for a clean energy revolution.
Rural mountain communities in Gunnison, Eagle and Pitkin counties voted to support clean, homegrown energy and energy efficiency. These clean energy investments are a triple win: They will increase energy security, save money on utility bills and create good local jobs.
Everyone agrees that upgrades such as home weatherization and energy saving appliances help us do more with less energy. Solar rooftops powering homes and small wind turbines powering farms and ranches have helped a number of new businesses get going. And by installing locally produced clean energy, people can do their part to cut pollution and decrease the need for costly energy transmission lines.
So what’s the catch? Money. The biggest obstacle is how homeowners and small businesses find the cash. Local investments make financial sense in the medium-to long term, yet even utility rebates that lower costs are often not enough for many homeowners and businesses.
Enter the program that western Colorado voters approved this fall. PACE stands for “Property Assessed Clean Energy. Its approach is simple: Local governments create programs so that homeowners and businesses can apply for long-term, affordable loans that pay the upfront costs of renewable energy and efficiency improvement projects. The loans are paid back through a special assessment on the property tax of property owners who choose to participate in the program. The loans are tied to the property, and they transfer to the new property owner(s) upon sale. The terms of these types of loans mean that monthly energy savings may be enough to cover the cost of the loan payment.
Once again, Colorado is ahead of the curve. Over a year and a half ago — well before Vice President Joe Biden announced a plan to make PACE available nationally — Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter signed a bill that gives cities and counties the means to create similar financing programs. The Governor’s Energy Office also jumped out in front and worked with local jurisdictions to help make these programs a reality. Another creative leader is Boulder County, which got approval in 2008 from voters for a $40 million program called “Climate Smart.” It is giving a shot in the arm to the local economy without costing taxpayers a dime.
Boulder County has issued over $6 million in clean energy improvement loans during the program’s first phase. This summer alone, local contractors and solar installers got close to 400 energy projects off the ground. Small businesses such as EcoHandyman, which added 20 new jobs through Climate Smart financing worth nearly $100,000, received an economic boost at a critical time.
After we saw this success on Colorado’s Front Range, we, as county commissioners, decided to “pick up the PACE” and ask our constituents this November if they wanted similar clean energy financing options. Local business interests including the Aspen Ski Company, Eagle Valley Homebuilders Association and the Crested Butte-Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce helped lead the charge, advocating for this approach. Voters in all three counties collectively authorized $20 million for clean energy projects loans.
Holy Cross Electric Association and Gunnison County Electric Association, both rural electric co-ops, actively supported the measures. They recognize that opening the door to broader participation in creating clean energy will not only be a boon to local economies, but also create more customers who can choose to “go solar” or make their homes more energy efficient. This will help drive down utility bills and complement utility efforts to reach clean energy and efficiency goals.
Colorado’s Western Slope has taken a big step towards boosting a green economic recovery. Now, our counties are awaiting a $5 million block grant from the Governor’s Energy Office, made possible by federal economic stimulus dollars, which would help jump start the PACE program and start clean energy education programs.
We’re glad to be part of these necessary changes, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it strengthens our communities and the people who make a living here. It’s a bottom-up transformation, and that’s always a good thing.
The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). Peter Runyon is a commissioner for Eagle County and Jim Starr is a commissioner for Gunnison County, both in western Colorado.
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