A selection of indica and sativa cannabis flowers on sale at Denver Relief. (Vince Chandler, The Denver Post)

‘The sky isn’t falling’: Towns reconsider legalized pot

ENGLEWOOD — A number of metro area cities and towns that have taken a wait-and-see approach to recreational pot since legal sales began in Colorado more than two years ago are no longer waiting and seeing.

At least four communities — Englewood, Sheridan, Littleton and Longmont — are in various stages of studying and debating a future with retail marijuana outlets.

In Lakewood, a campaign is underway by cannabis enthusiasts to get a measure on the ballot this fall to make pot shops legal there.

“It’s becoming evident to a number of local communities that it is safe to opt in,” said Michael Elliott, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group. “They’re looking at their neighbors, seeing that the sky isn’t falling and they’re saying, ‘What’s the big deal?'”

The suburbs have largely lagged behind Denver in terms of recreational marijuana availability, but that has slowly shifted. Aurora legalized the sector in 2014, and Commerce City followed with its OK to pot shops in 2015.

With the current wave of communities considering legalization of retail sales, the metro area’s bud-bereft south side in particular — all of Douglas County and much of Arapahoe County outlaw recreational marijuana sales — could finally get in on some of the action that has taken Colorado and the nation by storm.

In 2015, more than $587 million worth of recreational pot was sold in Colorado. Nearly $110 million in state sales and excise taxes were collected on those sales.

For small communities like Edgewater, which has half a dozen recreational marijuana stores, the tax revenue from cannabis sales has been a “pretty big deal,” according to city manager HJ Stalf.

Stalf said the tiny city on the west shore of Sloan’s Lake takes in just over $1 million in taxes on nearly $20 million in annual recreational marijuana sales, enough to allow it to fix up and repave all 12 miles of its streets.

“We had 20 years of deferred maintenance there,” he said.

Emmett Reistroffer, a member of the Englewood Liquor and Medical Marijuana Licensing Authority, said Edgewater serves as an example of how the industry can be a win-win for a community.

“We’ve had our time to hesitate, we’ve had our time to study it — I think there’s enough evidence out there that recreational marijuana can be done safely and responsibly,” he said “The conversation shouldn’t be about allowing the industry, it should be about embracing it.”

Littleton, whose City Council will vote Tuesday on whether to end the city’s nearly 2-year-old ban on pot shops, may be next.

City manager Michael Penny said tax revenue “was not a determining factor” in drafting an ordinance for the council to consider.

“We do not seek revenue,” he said. “We are a beneficiary of the success of our businesses and will provide the highest level of service delivery possible on the revenue we receive from our businesses.”

Penny said the campaign for recreational marijuana sales was driven by two medical marijuana businesses in the city. Any regulatory arrangement would likely involve issuing dual licenses for both recreational and medical sales, resulting in a cap of four stores.

In a letter penned to the city attorney last month, Littleton Police Chief Doug Stephens said the existing medical marijuana dispensaries have caused his department “very few problems.”

While he wants to see a limit to the number of shops, he said he doesn’t “anticipate significant negative impact related to crime should the council choose to allow recreational sales.”

Englewood’s elected leaders took up the issue for the first time last week in a study session, said city manager Eric Keck. The city could also follow a dual licensing scheme with its three medical shops.

“The other path is to open up the market a little more broadly and allow new players,” he said.

One of the unlikely places where Englewood’s ban has been challenged is at the high school, where 18-year-old Sophia Vamvakias wrote an editorial in November for the school newspaper titled “Where’s our pot money?!”

The senior, and editor-in-chief of The Pirateer, told The Denver Post “it does seem a little silly that Englewood gets no benefits from the revenue Denver gets from pot money, especially because it would seem Englewood citizens are customers in Denver pot shops.”

Englewood doesn’t get a portion of the 10 percent special state retail marijuana sales tax because it doesn’t have businesses that remit that tax, Vamvakias wrote.

“Our schools could use the money to actually expand our school building,” she said. “Right now, the high school has three hallways and not enough classrooms for all of the teachers. Chemistry is more fun when the science department can afford to buy resources for different labs. English is easier when each student can have a book.”

Reistroffer said it’s time that Englewood leaders listen to their constituents, who in November 2013 approved a nonbinding advisory measure to allow pot shops in the city. “It’s pretty clear a majority of Englewood voters want recreational marijuana,” he said.

That was not the case in Lakewood in November 2014, when residents of Colorado’s fifth-largest city voted 54 percent to 46 percent against recreational pot sales.

But that sentiment may have changed as the view of marijuana has changed across the country, and several players on the medical side are looking at placing a measure on the ballot this fall.

Lakewood has 12 medical marijuana dispensaries, which bring in about half a million dollars for the city in tax revenues yearly.

The city has approved the language for a petition, but Max Cohen, owner of The Clinic dispensary in Lakewood and one of the folks behind the proposed measure, said he and his allies are still deciding whether they have the money to begin the signature-gathering process.

They may need a big wallet, given the fact that Colorado Christian University campaigned against the 2014 legalization measure. President William Armstrong didn’t say whether CCU would oppose a ballot measure this time around.

“But we remain convinced that Lakewood voters did the right thing in forbidding retail sale of pot (in 2014),” he said last week. “Having marijuana readily available in the city would be a calamity, a serious health and safety risk for our students and for the entire community.”

Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul said the City Council has seen no reason to challenge the people’s 2014 decision, but he’s curious to see whether feelings on the issue have shifted. “It would be an interesting test of what the electorate thinks.”

John Aguilar: 303-954-1695, jaguilar@denverpost.com or @abuvthefold

This story was first published on DenverPost.com