The building stands out as oddly new on a gritty stretch of West Colfax Avenue, a green cross affixed to its facade, ready to beckon customers to sample the latest array of Colorado cannabis products.
But a group of neighborhood residents and civic leaders say a recreational pot shop at Colfax and Wolff Street will only detract from their efforts to rejuvenate and improve this faded urban corridor on Denver’s west side. They are fighting back.
Last week, the group filed a letter with the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses to challenge the proposed store’s proximity to schools and drug treatment facilities. They question its effect on children and those in the community seeking help for substance-abuse problems.
Chaim Abrams, operations manager for the Yeshiva Toras Chaim Talmudical Seminary just a few blocks from where the store would go in, said a pot shop in the neighborhood sends the wrong message.
“We attract a lot of out-of-state students. It would not be good for our reputation,” Abrams said. “People would think that this is the school in Denver to get pot. That’s not a great recruiting tool.”
The resistance in west Denver is just the latest local flare-up against the state’s burgeoning cannabis industry, which began legal sales of recreational pot 13 months ago.
A growing number of communities — from Palmer Lake, Brush and Granby to Breckenridge, Wheat Ridge and Pueblo — are pushing back against the explosion of marijuana shops across Colorado, which at latest count number more than 330.
The resistance efforts are generally small, confined to a single community or neighborhood, and revolve around familiar complaints about marijuana sales, such as odor, health effects, crime and exposure to children.
But the grassroots approach that detractors take can yield powerful results.
Jen Shepherd, a Wheat Ridge mom who founded the anti-pot group Parents for a Healthy Colorado last year, relied on community activism to help keep out a marijuana store proposed for the corner of West 38th Avenue and Miller Street. She banded with neighbors last summer and distributed more than 1,000 fliers to let people know about the store.
Residents rose up against it, prompting city leaders to scuttle the project by capping the number of cannabis businesses in Wheat Ridge to the number that exists now.
Shepherd said it often takes a storefront opening up close by to get people to finally sit up and take notice. As pot shops proliferate across the state, she said, their higher concentration and greater visibility is compelling more people to say no.
“Until you see it and are affected by it, you don’t really know what’s going on and don’t really need to know what’s going on,” she said.
Meg Collins, executive director of the Cannabis Business Alliance, said the pushback the industry is getting represents “growing pains” from Colorado’s experiment with legal pot. She acknowledged that marijuana stores are not always appropriate at any given location, even if a community’s zoning allows it, and that the best thing the industry can do is try to be as good a neighbor as possible.
“It’s really important that the community in which you are doing business knows what your business is,” Collins said. “A lot of time people are afraid of what they do not know. These protests put our industry on notice that from a professional standpoint we have to be on top of our game.”
Not in my backyard
Mike Elliott, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, said he’s not surprised by the concerns raised on West Colfax in Denver, which has 138 recreational pot shops.
“In Denver, there is a sense that there are plenty of stores already,” he said. “We want to find that right balance where we are being responsible members of the community and an asset.”
So far, the conflicts over pot sales, Elliott said, have been confined to individual neighborhoods and are driven largely by a “not in my backyard” mentality rather than by a wider denunciation of the entire industry.
That was the case in Breckenridge, where in December the town counsel upheld an ordinance banning recreational marijuana stores from Main Street. Jack Wolfe, who helped head up a citizen effort under the name Breckenridge for Thoughtful Marijuana, said the mountain town always has been very accepting of cannabis, and his campaign against downtown pot shops was based solely on economics, not on any perceived health or moral grounds.
“We obviously as a community accept marijuana,” said Wolfe, noting that 72 percent of Breckenridge residents voted in favor of Amendment 64 in 2012. “So our focus was where it should be — not if it should be.”
Breckenridge, he said, has spent years branding itself as family-friendly, and having a cannabis store on tourist-choked Main Street was simply too audacious.
A nonbinding vote of the people late last year confirmed his theory, with voters choosing to keep recreational marijuana shops away from downtown by a ratio of more than 2-to-1. Wolfe said more than 100 Breckenridge residents helped with the campaign, affirming it as a truly grassroots effort.
“You have to consider who the market is that comes to Breckenridge and not offend that market,” Wolfe said. “(Pot is) not mainstream in the United States, and we weren’t ready to have it on our Main Street.”
But local efforts to counter the industry have consequences.
A step back
In the case of Breckenridge, the Breckenridge Cannabis Club had to vacate its space on Main Street after five years there. Its final day downtown was Sunday, and Monday morning it opened at a new location more than a mile away under the name Backcountry Cannabis Co.
Co-owner Caitlin McGuire said tourists accounted for 90 percent of her business at the old location. Now that the store is out of the town’s tourist zone and clustered with three other retail pot shops, she expects to take a major financial hit.
McGuire said she understands the town’s concern about tourist traffic, but she said she was always a good steward for Breckenridge, confiscating fake IDs and putting on a welcoming face for intrigued out-of-towners wondering what a world with legal weed is like.
“It’s a huge step back,” she said. “Hopefully, over the next few years, we can continue to ease people’s concerns about this industry.”
While the resistance in Breckenridge was narrowly tailored, other resistance movements in Colorado have been more widespread, geographically and conceptually.
In December, elected leaders in Granby, which bans recreational pot sales, voted to annex land in unincorporated Grand County, which allows it, to prevent a pot shop from opening on its border.
Nearly 135 miles away in Palmer Lake, just north of Colorado Springs, voters in the town of 2,500 twice rejected efforts to legalize recreational marijuana sales last year. Chris Amenson led the group Citizens Against Legalized Marijuana of Palmer Lake to get an initiative on the November ballot prohibiting recreational pot shops in town until at least 2017.
He spent $10,000 on the effort and assembled a team of a dozen locals to help with his campaign. Amenson is matter-of-fact about why he waged battle against recreational pot in Palmer Lake.
“I did it because I have school-age kids and I didn’t think Palmer Lake was the place to have it,” he said. “A lot of towns are anxious to get the tax dollars from marijuana sales, but you have to think about what comes with it.”
Denver Councilwoman Susan Shepherd, who represents the West Colfax neighborhood where the latest marijuana dispute has arisen, overall praises the way the industry has conducted itself. But she also understands the uneasiness her constituents feel.
With an emergency family shelter, a facility offering addiction treatment programs and a longtime Orthodox Jewish community in the immediate area, Shepherd said the neighborhood may not be the best place for a new marijuana store.
A final decision from the city on a license for the store, which is being proposed by Cannabis for Health LLC, could come as soon as next week. A representative with the company declined to comment on the situation.
“Sixty-seven percent of Denver voters voted for legalized marijuana,” Shepherd said, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean they wanted a pot shop near them.”
John Aguilar: 303-954-1695, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/abuvthefold
A look at some of the community efforts against pot across Colorado:
Denver: Residents of the West Colfax neighborhood are actively opposing a proposed recreational marijuana store at the corner of Colfax Avenue and Wolff Street. A decision on a license for the store could come as soon as next week.
Wheat Ridge: Neighbors near West 38th Avenue and Miller Street rose up in opposition to a proposed pot store at the intersection. The City Council last month limited the number of stores in the city, meaning the new one could not be built.
Palmer Lake: A group called Citizens Against Legalized Marijuana of Palmer Lake pushed a ballot issue in November that would keep recreational pot sales out of the small town until at least 2017. The measure passed.
Granby: The town’s Board of Trustees voted in December to annex a parcel in unincorporated Grand County to keep a pot shop from opening on its border.
Brush: A man’s plan to turn a former prison into a marijuana grow operation was halted in August when elected leaders voted to extend a ban on recreational pot businesses to 2016.
Breckenridge: The town council in December voted to keep recreational cannabis shops off Main Street, forcing a longtime downtown store to move to the outskirts of town. The campaign against Main Street pot shops was led by a citizens group, Breckenridge for Thoughtful Marijuana.
Pueblo County: A citizens group called Pueblo for Positive Impact formed in 2014 in response to the proliferation of recreational marijuana stores.
John Aguilar: 303-954-1695, email@example.com or twitter.com/abuvthefold