The marijuana industry is just getting started in the metro area’s largest suburban city, which had the distinction of launching retail pot sales this fall with no medical marijuana experience.
As in Denver, elected officials felt pressure to respect Aurora voters’ support for Amendment 64.
But a special City Council committee set up to write Aurora’s rules also had an eye on making its pot shops competitive. They can stay open until 10 p.m., three hours later than in Denver.
So far, the city of nearly 350,000 has just a handful of dispensaries open, with 23 licenses granted of a maximum 24.
“Everything I understand is that it’s going very well,” said Councilman Bob Roth, who led the marijuana committee.
He said among its best decisions was to start with tough minimum requirements for applicants.
“We wanted to make sure that we had operators that not only were good business people,” Roth said, “but also had a clear understanding of this particular business.”
With the industry launching recently in Aurora, the revenue question still is open. City voters in November authorized a special 5 percent excise tax and a 2 percent sales tax on marijuana, with combined proceeds estimated at up to $2.4 million next year. Aurora’s regular sales tax is expected to raise $2.8 million more from marijuana sales.
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Voters in this tiny Western Slope town just east of Grand Junction also said no to recreational pot stores in November, but the margin was just six votes out of more than 1,000 ballots counted.
The election means Jesse Loughman, co-owner of medical marijuana dispensary Colorado Alternative Health Care in Palisade, won’t be able to expand his business into the world of recreational sales. Besides curtailing his own growth plans, Loughman said the town of 2,600 — famous for its vineyards and peach orchards — is forfeiting a potentially lucrative stream of revenue.
According to the town, Palisade stood to collect $200,000 annually in sales taxes from recreational marijuana operations.
“Two hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money for a town the size of Palisade,” Loughman said.
Pot stores, he said, would have fit in well with — and given an economic boost to — a town that boasts more than a dozen wineries, a brewery and a distillery.
But those who fought against Palisade’s recreational marijuana measure, like Diane Cox of the citizens group Safe and Healthy Mesa County, said the voters’ decision in November tells her that people are beginning to recognize the less-than-innocuous effects of marijuana, especially on young people.
“I think people are becoming a lot more alarmed,” Cox said. “Effects of marijuana on young people’s brains are devastating.”
The decision of voters in Palisade means that De Beque stands as the only town in Mesa County to permit recreational sales of cannabis. Its first store is expected to open this month.
The tiny town of Garden City didn’t hesitate to capitalize on recreational marijuana.
Situated between Greeley and Evans in Weld County, the town of 300 or so residents and 60 businesses previously had embraced medical marijuana. And after the end of Prohibition, it incorporated and welcomed bars and liquor stores a full three decades before Greeley followed suit.
“I think the surrounding communities would rather we didn’t” allow marijuana dispensaries, said Cheryl Campbell, the town administrator. “They’re pretty vocal about it. We see stuff in the paper.”
But the town board, reflecting the town’s independent spirit, voted 7-0 to approve the expansion to retail marijuana. All four medical cannabis dispensaries have jumped on board.
Retail marijuana is among the factors driving a surge in sales tax revenue, which Campbell says the town doesn’t break down by source. It didn’t create a special marijuana tax.
In November, the town collected $105,356 from all businesses, she said, up 81 percent over the same month last year. Sales tax receipts for the year through November were about $924,000, versus $668,000 for all of last year.
“Last year, at this time, I would never have speculated more than $1 million in sales taxes,” Campbell said.
The excess cash has enabled the town to earmark $300,000 for a “major face-lift” of its three-block main street next year, with a revitalization plan still being formulated.
Colorado’s second-largest city put in place its recreational sales ban without going to the ballot box — the City Council voted 5-4 in summer 2013 to prohibit recreational marijuana sales. In September, the council voted against putting the issue on the ballot for voters to decide in April.
City Council president Keith King said “there weren’t enough rules and regulations” ready for a potential recreational cannabis sector in the city for the majority of the council to feel comfortable seeking a vote of the electorate. King specifically wanted a 10 percent city tax on retail pot sales in the city.
“Unless it is highly regulated or highly taxed, it’s not worth doing,” he said.
But Councilwoman Jill Gaebler said Colorado Springs is essentially putting its head in the sand on the issue. With a popular and highly trafficked recreational marijuana store in nearby Manitou Springs, Gaebler said Colorado Springs is getting hit with the social impacts of legal pot without realizing any of the revenue benefits from sales tax collections.
Voters in the city narrowly passed Amendment 64 in 2012.
City officials estimate that recreational cannabis businesses would generate $500,000 to $900,000 a year based on a 1 percent sales tax levy. Through the first 10 months of 2014, Colorado Springs collected more than $1.1 million in sales tax revenues from the medical marijuana dispensaries that operate in the city.
Elliott, the Marijuana Industry Group director, said Colorado Springs and other communities like it are doing little to keep marijuana out of their midst by prohibiting its legal sale.
“Colorado Springs is leaving it to the black market,” he said. “Marijuana is being bought and sold in all of these communities. And by banning it, they have decided to let the drug cartels sell it instead of regulated and taxed businesses.”
Jon Murray: 303-954-1405, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/JonMurray. John Aguilar: 303-954-1695, email@example.com or twitter.com/abuvthefold