Turning a new leaf: Retail marijuana in the Gunnison Valley

Part 3: Community Perception

By Alissa Johnson

Last week, in Part II of “Turning a new leaf,” the Crested Butte News looked at the role of grow operations in helping retail marijuana businesses find their niches in the market. This week, we look at the thought process that went into creating local regulations and what it says about community perceptions of marijuana.

Place a few calls around the town of Crested Butte asking what it was like to develop regulations for retail marijuana, and it doesn’t take long to get the sense that marijuana has become business as usual. Despite the fact that the industry is relatively new—Colorado voters passed Amendment 64 legalizing retail marijuana in 2012 and the first stores opened in 2014—town staff had few stories about community debates or disagreements. If anything, it was hard to jog their memories.

“I don’t remember having a huge uproar about it. I mean, there were some people who were pro doing it and some people who were anti doing it, but they weren’t well organized and there weren’t that many of them. It seemed like the sentiment was to allow it,” said building and zoning director Bob Gillie.

Place a few calls around Gunnison, where seven retail stores are open and more are on the way, and it’s a slightly different story. The City Council just developed regulations in 2015, and at the City Council level, there was a significant amount of discussion about how to regulate marijuana.

“How do you keep people safe? How do you keep people who aren’t supposed to have it from having it? Those two priorities were a driving force in what was decided,” said mayor pro tem Bob Drexel.

Some on City Council spoke in favor of retail marijuana and some spoke against it, and once the council decided to allow retail marijuana, councilmembers and the public spent a lot of time looking at where to allow marijuana stores, whether to limit the number of licenses, how prominent signs should be, and whether marijuana establishments should be near churches. The faith community, Drexel said, was very active in the discussion.

“We went back and forth so many times,” Drexel said, referring to where stores would be allowed.

In some ways, the processes are likely a reflection of each community’s perception of marijuana, but it’s important to remember that in Crested Butte, marijuana dispensaries already existed. Gillie confirmed that the marijuana discussion goes back to 2009, when Crested Butte drafted its first ordinance dealing with medical marijuana.

When voters legalized retail marijuana, the town followed a fairly straightforward process to develop regulations. The Town Council put a moratorium in place in May 2013, and during that time, the council and town staff developed regulations.

“[Across Colorado], a lot of places disallowed it and other places allowed it to go free for all, but we had a long discussion about it and decided that being a little more on the liberal end of stuff, we probably would allow it with certain conditions,” Gillie said.

Gunnison was starting from scratch. There, electors initially voted to prohibit medical marijuana establishments, and in 2011, the City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting medical marijuana centers, manufacturers and cultivations. In 2013, the City Council passed another ordinance prohibiting the operation of retail marijuana establishments, and it wasn’t until 2014 that voters spoke again, approving medical and retail marijuana establishments within city limits.

According to Gunnison city clerk Gail Davidson, city staff developed a working group to develop regulations that included Community Development, the police department and the city clerk’s department.

“We took a look at municipal marijuana codes from all over the state, particularly ones from places like Durango that had a college associated with it and tourism,” Davidson explained.

The group also considered state code, and then the Gunnison council debated the finer points of the code. As it stands, marijuana businesses are allowed in the industrial zone and parts of the commercial district, but not in the core commercial district or near schools. They can be near churches, but on Sundays, marijuana establishments may not open until 1 p.m. The council placed no limits on the number of licenses; they opted instead to let the market determine how many will survive.

The discussion revealed some differences of opinion within the community and required that people get honest about how they feel about marijuana. For Drexel, a lifelong educator, making sure that kids and families wouldn’t be impacted was paramount.

“I’ve been an educator all my life and been responsible for protecting kids, and that was a real concern. Not only for kids but for families and seeing how drug abuse and drug addiction has negatively impacted families,” Drexel said.

Lou Costello, owner of the Cannabis Cabin retail store in Gunnison and an associated grow operation in Gunnison County, was heavily involved in the public process; he found that he had to get honest about smoking marijuana.

“In the beginning it was difficult. I have a reputation in this town,” Costello said. A well-known businessman, he has been on several boards of directors, including Tri-state Generation and Transmission Association, Inc. “What people didn’t understand all those years is that I was also a pot smoker. I was able to do my job and perform at a high level. I had to let that be known, and I did and I am not embarrassed.”

He found the public debate to be painful at times, primarily because it highlighted people’s opinions one way or the other about marijuana, and from what he saw, those opinions were not always based on facts. He kept at it, however, and stayed in the conversation because he saw the entrepreneurial possibilities and believes in marijuana.

“I believe in marijuana. I have believed in the plant for many, many years. It has a lot of medicinal properties. Instead of taking hard drugs or prescription drugs, you can take marijuana and it’s beneficial for people,” Costello said.

He was in the shop, for example, when the son of a 93-year-old woman returned, hugging the budtenders because the product they’d sold his mom enabled her to wake up pain-free for the first time in years.

Though the discussion was long, it did help the city develop regulations that balanced the desires of the business community with the values of the community. Drexel, for example, initially wanted to limit stores to the industrial zone, but came to realize that it might be better to have them out in the open.

“I came to a realization that maybe, knowing youth, hiding those facilities away on some back street wasn’t as wise as it could have been… Some would say, ‘It’s off limits, I’m not going there.’ There might be others who say, ‘Oh, that’s a no-no,’ so that’s a challenge to me to participate.”

Ultimately, it seems that what drove the development of marijuana regulations across the valley was the will of the people. Like Crested Butte, Gunnison County placed a moratorium on retail marijuana to buy time to figure out how to regulate it. County commissioner Jonathan Houck was elected on the same ballot that legalized retail marijuana, and once appointed, he spoke up in favor of figuring out those regulations sooner rather than later.

“Here I was, the new commissioner, and at first we were going down the road of ‘Let’s just not do this in unincorporated Gunnison County.’ To me it was less a marijuana issue than the majority of people in Gunnison County voted for this, and it’s our responsibility to listen to the will of the people,” Houck said.

Of the 7,790 votes cast on the issue in Gunnison County, 67 percent voted in favor of legalizing retail marijuana.

Ultimately, the county treated it much like any other burgeoning industry. The commissioners opted to allow grow operations as well as manufacturing and testing facilities in unincorporated parts of the county but not retail stores. That is in keeping with other commodities, according to county manager Matthew Birnie.

“Based on the vote, we’ve treated it like many other commodities; that is, they are fine to be produced or grown outside incorporated towns, but our regulations don’t allow stores because our land use regime prefers that kind of commerce to happen in towns,” Birnie said.

Birnie and Houck both pointed out that Gunnison County is one of few counties in the state to take that kind of approach; most disallowed marijuana altogether or allowed all types of business. For Houck, that speaks to the nature of Gunnison County.

“We were one of the few that got more nuanced, and that’s the style the county does things in, whether it’s oil and gas, mining, or imperiled and endangered species. We try to get creative and not polarize the community,” Houck said. “Not only did we figure it out, we figured it out with our community in mind and made it congruent with other things we do.”


Of course, driving down Main Street in Gunnison it’s hard to miss the growing number of marijuana retail stores. And while the market will ultimately decide how many stores remain, sitting in the newspaper office in Crested Butte, it’s hard to miss the tourists heading to Belleview Avenue—a section of town where they’d previously be an anomaly. The marijuana industry has an undeniable presence in the valley. Next week, in the final installment of “Turning a new leaf,” we’ll take a look at its impact on the community.

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