Six Months In to Pot Legalization, Is Telluride Making the State Look Good?
TELLURIDE – Recreational marijuana has been legal in Colorado for a little over half a year now and as national debate continues as to the merits of legalization, other states are looking to Colorado’s example to determine if the benefits of legalization and regulation at the state level will outweigh potential costs.
In the same way Colorado’s approach to legalization has implications for the rest of the country, Telluride’s progress with legalization will also have an impact on the State of Colorado and whether the state’s efforts to legalize and regulate pot can be considered a complete success.
By financial measures, if Telluride’s evolution after seven months of legalization is an indication of how Colorado is doing, things are looking good.
According to Telluride Finance Director Lynne Beck, “We have received a total of $89,752 for the 5 months of sales (Jan. through May). Of this, $62,397 is from recreational sales and $27,355 is medical sales.”
In addition, the town has received $19,433 from the state’s “share-back” program, which helps cover the costs borne by local governments to license marijuana dispensaries.
These numbers pale in comparison to the $2,101,666 Black says the town has made in total sales tax revenue through May.
Although the pot industry is having a positive impact on the town’s pocketbook, Town Manager Greg Clifton would limit the significance of legalization to just that.
In a recent interview, Clifton stated that, with regard to other effects legalization might have had in its first six months, “There have been no discernible changes, as we had medical marijuana dispensaries in town prior to recreational pot. Truthfully, I think there has been way too much hype to the whole thing and I look forward to the day when we can report on the many positive attributes of Telluride and its surroundings without focusing on weed.”
Colorado On The Forefront
In a New York Times editorial, Let States Decide On Marijuana, David Firestone posits that legalizing marijuana is a “choice that states should be allowed to make based on their culture and their values, and it’s not surprising that the early adopters would be socially liberal states like Colorado and Washington, while others hang back to gauge the results.”
In the editorial, the first in a series of Times’ editorials arguing for the end of federal criminalization of marijuana, Firestone argues that “the states are taking the lead because they’re weary of locking up thousands of their own citizens for possessing a substance that has less potential for abuse and destructive behavior than alcohol.”
Supporting that argument, in a recent interview concerning incidents occurring with the increasing transient population in Telluride, Chief Marshal Jim Kolar emphasized that alcohol is almost always a contributing factor when it comes to his departement’s responses and arrests, whereas weed is not.
In another New York Times editorial, The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests, Jesse Wegman states that “criminalization has not affected general usage of marijuana; about 30 million Americans use marijuana every year,” and argued that “police departments that presumably have far more important things to do than waste an enormous amount of time and taxpayer money chasing a drug that two states have already legalized and that a majority of Americans believe should be legal everywhere.”
Wegman also cited a 2012 Human Rights Watch report that tracked 30,000 New Yorkers with no prior convictions when they were arrested for marijuana possession, with 90 percent having no subsequent felony convictions. Only 3.1 percent committed a violent offense.
Recent statements made by San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters support Kolar’s observation that Telluride has not seen any increase in violent crime, or crime at all, as a result of legalization.
Masters simply offered a succinct “no” in a recent interview in response to a question about whether the Sheriff’s Office had seen an increase in arrests for pot-related offenses, including DUIDs, since legalization.
Kolar said that the Marshal’s Department has not seen an increase in criminal arrests since legalization, however he did note that “some complaints from pharmacies were received initially about disheveled people trying to buy pot in the wrong place, but that is no longer an issue.”
Kolar has noticed a slight uptick in the number of DUID arrests in the past six months, but emphasized there have also been a few more DUI arrests relating to alcohol during the same time period.
Both Masters and Kolar also confirmed that neither Sheriff’s Office or Marshal’s Department has seen increased expenditures directly related to legalization.
Ironically, illegal marijuana seems to be the biggest marijuana-related problem local law enforcement deals with, despite the fact pot has been legal for over six months.
Masters explained that where the Sheriff’s Office is seeing increased costs is in trying to control the illegal marijuana grows that are continuing to start up around Norwood and other locations.
“I estimate there are 50 grow operations in excess of 100 plants claiming to be medical marijuana” he said, and explained that “This is a fraud because the plants are excessive in number and/or the “caregiver” is not having a daily impact on the quality of the patient life” as required by regulations.
“This untaxed unregulated unlicensed marijuana is entering the black market in Colorado and other states,” he added. “The Sheriffs Office is attempting to get these grow operations to either come into compliance with state law or cease production. I believe the only way marijuana legalization will work is if people obey the legislation and constitutional amendments that have been passed.”
Not Your Average Stoners
For Gregory Viditz-Ward, owner of Telluride pot shop The Green Room, legalization of recreational pot has good for his business that formerly sold medical marijuana.
“It’s been great,” he said in a recent interview. “Everything has calmed down, but we are still steadily busy and have been seeing more people since legalization.”
Viditz-Ward takes care to note that contrary to what critics and skeptics feared, legalization of marijuana has not resulted in mass chaos and juvenile delinquency, but that in fact “the average age we see coming in here to buy pot is about 52 … we see a lot of older people who simply want a healthier and safer alternative for things like pain relief and insomnia.”
Although things have been coasting along relatively well for recreational shops like The Green Room, there are still hurdles to overcome.
Viditz-Ward noted that regulations are still constantly changing, almost as frequently as once-a-month.
“There are a lot of regulations related to packaging and labeling that we have to keep abreast of,” he explained, “but the regulations are getting easier and easier to comply with.”
According to Viditz-Ward, access to basic banking is also still a challenge the retail pot industry must confront.
“Banks still won’t touch us,” he explained, “and because the banking industry won’t accept us we are still forced to accept only cash or debit cards. We cannot do anything at all with the banks.”
A Problem of Over-Consumption
On a less positive note, Telluride Medical Center (TMC) emergency care physician Daniel Hehir, M.D. has treated multiple patients for marijuana over-consumption.
“In my first 10 years of work in Emergency Departments I did not see one case of a patient who took too much marijuana to the point that it resulted in an Emergency Department visit,” he said in a statement in April. “Now it is a frequent occurrence.”
Also in April, Telluride Chief Paramedic Emil Sante made the statement that “the problem isn’t new” and added that retail marijuana does not seem to pose a significant threat to public health. “It could be that some people who already have anxiety issues can cascade into other issues,” he said, of patients experiencing marijuana-related health problems. “But they’re not serious medical issues.”
Roughly 100 days later, in a recent interview with Director of Emergency Medical Services for TMC, Diana Koelliker stated that while TMC has seen an increase in the number of ER visits related to pot, particularly this past winter just after legalization occurred. “Most visits were related to overconsumption (mostly inadvertant) and its resultant symptoms of anxiety, racing heart, nausea, etc and the majority of these visits were benign medically and all resolved without significant interventions.”
She added, “No hospitalizations have been necessary thus far and continued that “These types of visits have decreased recently in the past couple of months.”
Viditz-Ward believes it is part of his duty as the owner of a shop that sells retail marijuana to assist TMC and EMS with bringing the number of patients admitted for pot-related complications down by emphasizing education and safety even before the point of purchase and beyond.
“We are working with EMS and are in constant contact with TMC to help with awareness and education, particularly with regard to dosages of edibles,” he said. “I helped word and design the “Marijuana Awareness” sign you see in the shops, and my staff is trained to educate customers when they come in here.”
Koelliker believes that these efforts seem to have already had an impact, stating that she believes the recent decrease in pot-related ER visits due to the campaign to get more information out.
She states “This effort was initially lead by our EMS in conjunction with the local dispensaries and tourism industry in town. Now the posters and pamphlets that provide more information are in all dispensaries, hotels, visitors’ center, etc. They basically encourage moderation in consumption and to be wary if there are underlying health issues when using these products. I don’t know if it is a direct cause and effect, but since this campaign, we have definitely seen a decrease in these types of visits at the med center.”