By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
Marijuana has been legal for adult recreational use (meaning the over-21 crowd) since 2012, and for medical uses (including minors aged 18 or older with parental permission) since 2000, but it remains listed as a “controlled substance” as dangerous as heroin by the federal government.
But it took another nine years before cannabis, its formal designation, became widely available to the public, after the Obama administration announced it would not pursue enforcement of federal anti-marijuana laws in states where the drug had been legalized.
Carbondale, like many other towns around Colorado, experienced a “green boom” starting in 2010, as local and regional entrepreneurs jumped on the medical marijuana bandwagon, and expanding in 2012 after recreational pot was legalized.
At one point there were 13 cannabis-related licenses on file at Carbondale’s Town Hall, representing cultivation facilities, medical marijuana shops and more.
Today, according to Town Clerk Cathy Derby, the situation may seem a bit tamer than the “wild west of marijuana” of several years ago, as those heady days were known.
But the fact is, while the boom seems to have died down, the cannabis businesses here is as thriving as ever.
Derby reported that the town currently has on file five retail marijuana licenses, two for medical marijuana, four retail cultivation permits, two medical cultivation licenses, four licenses for retail “marijuana infused products” (or MIPs, as they are known) such as candy and cookies, and three permits for medical-marijuana MIPs.
That’s a total of 20 licenses, but because businesses have overlapping licenses for different aspects of the industry, that represents nine distinct businesses.
Only one local store, Rocky Mountain High on Buggy Lane, offers both retail and medical marijuana products.
Derby said three are not “operational,” meaning they are not open for business but still hold a valid license.
Statewide, according to the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division of the Department of Revenue, there are nearly 3,000 cannabis-related businesses — 1,561 of them in medical marijuana, and 1,410 in retail.
Concerns about the feds
The “green boom” in Colorado and other areas has recently been tempered by concern that federal authorities, under President Donald Trump, have threatened to shut down or otherwise interfere with voter-approved cannabis industries in the 29 states that either have such laws or soon will.
The emphasis so far, according to statements from Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other members of the current administration, has been on the recreational pot industry, which is legal in only seven states, according to the website www.governing.com.
Even so, most cannabis entrepreneurs in Colorado remain hopeful that the nascent cannabis industry is of considerable value to strapped state economies and is here to stay.
For example, The Hill, an online news publication, reported on April 4 that the governors of four states — Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska — wrote to Sessions and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on the topic of cannabis.
The letter asked the Justice Department to maintain a 2013 agreement crafted under the Obama administration, known as the Cole Memo, which pledged to take a hands-off attitude toward federal marijuana law enforcement in states where cannabis had been legalized by the voters.
And in March of this year, news agencies reported that a bipartisan bill had been introduced into Congress to completely remove cannabis plants from the Controlled Substances Act, leaving cannabis enforcement entirely up to the states (a similar bill has been introduced to Congress each term for the past several years.)
In Colorado, the threats of federal enforcement has not prevented new businesses from being started, however.
Mark Smith, whose Tumbleweed Carbondale retail cannabis store recently won approval from the town, is one of those who is not particularly worried about federal interference.
With seven recreational cannabis stores on the Western Slope, including a drive-through dispensary in Parachute, as well as two MIP outlets in Las Vegas, Nevada, Smith and his partners, Sherri Marzario and Dan Griffith, are planning to open a new shop in Carbondale, on Highway 133, as soon as they complete work on the premises.
As for concern about interference by the Trump administration, Smith said in a telephone interview that he believes Colorado’s constitutional amendments will stand up against any federal pressure or action.
“I think the business is actually too big to fail,” Smith said.
He said the industry employs the second largest number of people in the state, has hit the billion-dollar mark in sales, and clearly has the support of voters.
“It’s a very big enterprise,” he continued, including an unknown number of state employees overseeing the regulations and restrictions placed on the industry, as well as employees of companies producing the goods and services that support the industry.
“We all believe it’s going to be the largest industry in the state within a couple of years, employing more people than the government,” he predicted.
And, he said, the industry is closely regulated by the state, which should keep the feds at bay.