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Jeffco debates approach to recreational pot

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Retail marijuana shops may not be in county's future

By Ramsey Scott

As the state grapples with the voters’ decision last November to legalize the recreational use of marijuana by approving Amendment 64, questions loom for Jefferson County as well.

Currently the state is trying to create a regulatory framework for the use and sale of recreational marijuana. And the committee tasked with creating rules and regulations is working against a July 1 deadline. 

That deadline is why Jeffco is discussing its options now. On Feb. 13, the county commissioners and the department heads for various county offices met to discuss how the county should move forward with its own regulations. 

Jeffco Commissioner Don Rosier said that if the state doesn’t manage to get it all figured out over the next five months, counties will have to deal with legalization issues on their own. 

“Most individuals will concede that July 1 will come and go before there’s a consensus and before those regulations will be put in place,” Rosier said, citing conversations he’s had with people involved in the process. “They’re still messing with medical marijuana, and how many years has that been? So for them to come up with a set list of rules and regulations by July 1 — that’s a pretty sizable task.”

Rosier said that once the deadline passes, Jeffco by law must put a plan in place by October to begin the process of approving recreational marijuana shops that want to open in the county — if the county decides to allow shops selling recreational marijuana at all.

Amendment 64, which officially took effect Jan. 1, makes it legal for adults in Colorado to possess less than an ounce of marijuana and regulates pot in ways similar to how alcohol use is governed. 

 

Pot shops in Jeffco?

One provision of Amendment 64 allows the retail sale of marijuana throughout the state. Yet the amendment also includes an option for counties and cities to opt out of allowing retail marijuana sales.

While a majority of people in Jeffco voted in favor of Amendment 64, many in county government, including Jeffco Assessor Jim Everson, wonder if that should constitute a mandate for allowing retail shops.

“You can’t detect from that if people were more interested in the individual-mandate part of that, which you’re stuck with. We didn’t do any polling on that,” Everson said. “It’s very unclear, and given the risk that the county has in moving forward with very uncertain regulation, I can’t see any reason to opt in. … I think as a county we’d be derelict to adopt a policy that says we’re going to opt in.”

Everson said the county shouldn’t be on the front lines of what is certain to be a contentious issue for years to come. That sentiment was shared by many in county government. 

“When you talk about my personal feeling … how do we regulate things that to me are illegal?” Commissioner Faye Griffin said.

Everson said that if the county wants to revisit the issue, it wouldn’t be difficult to reverse any decision. 

“If you have the power to prohibit, you have the power to un-prohibit,” Everson said. “It seems to me that the safe harbor for any local right now is to pass an ordinance prohibiting the commercial uses and deal with the individual uses.”

Rosier also pointed out that some municipalities in the county, such as Lakewood, have created a framework for the medical marijuana industry and allow dispensaries within city limits. But the commissioners voted in 2010 to ban medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated Jeffco. 

Without the medical-pot framework already in place, Rosier said, the county would be hard pressed to meet an October deadline for regulations governing use and sales of recreational marijuana.

 

Legal marijuana and the feds

Even if the county were to permit retail sales of recreational marijuana in unincorporated areas, Jeffco still faces numerous questions related to personal recreational use. 

First and foremost: What potential enforcement actions could be taken by the federal government, since pot remains illegal under federal law?

Marijuana is still classified as a schedule 1 drug by the federal government, putting it in the same category as heroin. What, if any, action the federal government might take remains to be seen, said Jeffco District Attorney Peter Weir. 

Weir has been talking with U.S. Attorney John Walsh in an attempt to get some indication of what the federal government might do. Colorado’s law being in conflict with federal statutes creates a scenario in which officials in the state could break the law, Weir said, describing a hypothetical situation in which the Jeffco Sheriff’s Office confiscated marijuana during a search. 

If the marijuana is deemed to be possessed legally, the Sheriff’s Office could be sued by the owner if it didn’t return the pot. Yet if the Sheriff’s Office did return the marijuana, Weir said, the federal government could hold it criminally liable for returning an illegal drug to its owner.

Another question is how Colorado’s new law will affect funding from the federal government. Weir said his office could lose federal grants since it would no longer be in compliance with federal marijuana laws. 

“We have far more questions than we have answers. I wish I had more clarification for you,” Weir said. “We can get some clarification once the feds take a position on it.”

 

Contact Ramsey Scott at ramsey@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22.