Courtney Hays, right, helps Austin Mathews at Green Sativa on July 26, 2016, in Federal Heights, Colorado. In November 2014, Federal Heights residents voted to permit medical marijuana facilities within the city. Green Sativa opened in March, the first to do so. (Anya Semenoff, The Denver Post)

This cannabis-cautious city now thinks recreational sales could save its budget

Ballot measure for recreational sales to go before Federal Heights voters this fall. The Denver-area city currently has $31,000 in annual tax revenue

The marijuana industry has been slow to arrive in the small city of Federal Heights, but officials and businesses expect its budding presence to make a direly needed economic impact on the city of about 12,000 people.

In 2014, voters approved the operation of medical cannabis facilities in the city. So far, a new business called Green Sativa is the first and only store to officially open at 8411 Pecos St. in March.

“The patients we have are really happy that we’re here, because a lot of them in the area have had to drive to downtown Denver or even up to Boulder to find good, quality medicine,” said Courtney Hays, manger of Green Sativa. “So when we opened, people with medical needs who live two minutes away were excited and definitely relieved.”

Three other medical marijuana dispensaries are in various stages of opening their doors as well. Construction and state licensing delays have slowed the process of getting then up and running for nearly two years. 

“Two more applicants are in their tenant finish stage, where they are working on the interior to get them ready to be inspected by the city’s building department,” said Jacqueline Halburnt, Federal Heights city manager. “Once that’s done, we can issue licenses. We’re hoping to have at least two more open in the next couple of months.”

At the last city meeting two weeks ago, Federal Heights City Council agreed to ask its voters for a third time if they would allow recreational sales of marijuana in the city.

Recreational marijuana sales were shot down by voters in 2010 and again in 2014, but the margins have been shrinking. When voters narrowly approved medical marijuana sales in the city two years ago, they also approved a 5 percent tax on the sale of recreational weed. That tax wasn’t applied when the question to allow those sales was rejected, but it is currently approved in the off-chance that voters change their minds this year.

“So that tax is already in place,” Halburnt said. “If this passes in November then we’re ready to go.”

The ballot language for that 5 percent tax specifies a dedicated portion of the revenue going to things such as local drug education programs and the prevention of youth marijuana consumption. According to Federal Heights Deputy Police Chief Don Vallero, there has not been a significant rise in underage possession or marijuana-related citations in the city.

Federal Heights Mayor Daniel Dick thinks that allowing businesses like Green Sativa to expand into that 21 and older market will ultimately boost the city’s operating budget and help it achieve needed infrastructure improvements and ensure better stability for the city as a whole.

“The city of Federal Heights has less than $31,000 in public tax (revenue). That’s all,” Dick said. “Sales tax is a critical issue, and we have limited land and demographic space. This is an opportunity to contribute in a positive way to the city’s income to benefit our streets, our workers and our quality of life. The additional tax revenue from (recreational) marijuana would bring us that much closer to those goals that will make our city more attractive. It’s just one step.”

The current city tax on medical cannabis products is 4 percent, which is that same for all taxable products throughout Federal Heights. Two years ago, predictions from the finance departed estimated a possible $300,000 a year in revenue from medical and retail sales out of four viable store locations.

Dick admits that he was vocally opposed to marijuana sales years ago but changed his mind when anonymous constituents called him to explain how marijuana as a medicine for their pain was integral to their quality of life.

“It changed the way I thought about it entirely,” he said.

At Green Sativa, there are already 78 medical members from around the city and surrounding jurisdictions who have their plants grown by the dispensary.  

“Our patients are our top priority because there are so many of them here with this need,” Hays said. “The nearest medical store from here is in Northglenn off 104th (Avenue). Most people live within 20 minutes of us.”

She said, on average, Green Sativa sees about 30 patients every day, and a lot of customers come in looking for recreational sales. 

“The owner would absolutely like to open another medical store and maybe a recreation store if the city allows it here,” Hays said. “If it does go through, we have enough room to divide the building into medical and recreational and expand pretty quickly.”

This story was first published on DenverPost.com