CO: Retail Marijuana In The Gunnison Valley

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It is harvest day at the Cannabis Cabin grow operation in Gunnison County, and seven employees sit at tables trimming marijuana flowers. A marijuana plant hangs upside down from a scale between the tables, most of its branches bare.

Each trimmer works over a black tray, trimming the flowers with small scissors and carefully separating the bud from the trim, or the leaves and other discarded parts. The fingertips of the workers’ gloves are covered with a sticky, green residue – the very reason that the Cannabis Cabin trims by hand.

According to owner Lou Costello and his son, grow manager Joey Costello, the machine they once used to trim plants grew so gummed up it didn’t make sense to use it. As of the last pay period, Lou had 15 employees, seven of whom are full time. During the harvest, it’s clear that they don’t fit any stereotype. One is a professional gardener, and Joey says, “One of my old high school teachers is in that room.”

According to Chuck Reynolds, owner and retail manager for SOMA, his company has 32 people on payroll, which includes two retail stores and the grow operation. While not every establishment will employ that many people, it’s hard to deny the influx of jobs here.

Yet there are other ways the marijuana industry has influenced the community – some positive and some challenging to community leaders.

Perhaps one of the most obvious impacts is the money generated for local governments. According to town finance director Lois Rozman, Crested Butte collected $94,000 in sales taxes from marijuana in 2014. In 2015, that figure grew to $140,000, representing about $3.5 million in marijuana sales.

In Crested Butte, those marijuana sales taxes are treated like any other sales tax: a portion goes to parks and rec; some to transportation (primarily the Mountain Express Shuttle Service); and the rest to the general fund, to be used or transferred as needed.

Gunnison is also seeing an infusion of marijuana revenues. On top of sales tax, the city has a 5 percent special tax that generated $80,490.34 January through July of this year. That puts the fund significantly above budget, which projected $50,000 in revenue for the entire year.

According to Ben Cowan, city finance director, that $50,000 budget is allocated to substance abuse prevention, education and counseling; scholarships to help disadvantaged youth participate in city recreation programs; educational materials in the police department; and to help hire a police officer to restore the department to full staffing levels and help with marijuana law enforcement and education in schools.

“Excess funds will be held in a general fund restricted account to be deployed in the areas identified in the ballot language. The council wants to ensure that dollars are used for research and evidence based programs,” Cowan said.

At the county level, finance director Linda Nienhueser says that the sales tax revenue generated by the 1 percent county tax amounted to $29,815.71 from January through July. “As all the retail shops are in the city limits of municipalities in our county, we share back 50 percent of the receipts to those entities,” Nienheuser said.

Both Crested Butte and Gunnison have also benefited from a share of the 10 percent tax collected by the state of Colorado, of which local governments receive a 15 percent cut. Crested Butte received $17,322 from January through June, and Gunnison’s share for the same time period was about $18,579.

What remains to be seen is how marijuana revenues level out. According to Rozman, marijuana revenues in Crested Butte are down significantly this year, largely due to the opening of stores in Gunnison. “Through July, sales tax for marijuana is down 29 percent,” she said, though sales tax as a whole was up 3.9 percent year to date.

It might also take some time to see how state revenues trickle down to Gunnison County. According to a 9News article, the state collected $129 million in state marijuana taxes during the fiscal year that ended in June 2015. But that’s only 1.3 percent of the $10.3 billion in taxes collected for the general fund.

“It’s more than just a drop in the bucket – closer to a cupful,” the article stated, yet noted this boost to the budget was not a complete game changer. And while the marijuana wholesale tax is dedicated to schools, it goes to specific programs: the first $40 million to a state program called BEST, for grants to build and improve school facilities, and anything above that to the public school fund (most recently $2.6 million, according to the article).

According to Stephanie Juneau, business manager for the RE1J school district, “The RE1J school district has not received one cent through any funds that would have come from the marijuana industry, either local or state.”

Still, some sales tax revenues did find their way to the Gunnison Valley. The Gunnison County Substance Abuse Prevention Program (GCSAPP) benefited this year from two grants that came from state marijuana tax dollars. According to project director Kari Commerford, GCSAPP applied for a Communities That Care grant through a partnership with Gunnison County Public Health and from the Tony Grampass Youth Services grant which is comprised partly of state marijuana tax dollars.

So while the money is there, in some cases – like Crested Butte – it’s difficult to point to specific community benefits it has paid for. In others, it’s still making its way to the community. The Gunnison City Council, for example, was slated to discuss its funds for substance abuse prevention, education and counseling at a September meeting.

What is clear is that marijuana has made its way into the community, and not always in positive ways. Gunnison County under sheriff Randy Barnes said a second black market for marijuana has developed: tourists leave their unused marijuana and marijuana products in hotels rooms and sometimes hotel staff sell them illegally.

He’s also seen issues at rental properties, where outdated leases don’t address growing, manufacturing or smoking on the premises. “Renters won’t know their house is being used for a grow operation until the tenants leave and then get black mold or other consequences,” he said.

In those cases, Barnes said enforcement is a challenge – his officers can check out what’s going on, but often there’s no legal footing to go further. Inconsistencies in the law between medical marijuana and home grows also mean people can grow many plants in one place, creating issues with odors and more.

“If the state of Colorado treated medical marijuana regulations to the degree they are regulating retail marijuana we would not have the problems we are dealing with,” he said.

Both Barnes and Crested Butte chief marshal Tom Martin noted that commercial marijuana establishments have a vested interest in following regulations. “Retail marijuana stores probably understand the rules and regulations better than we do, and there’s a reason. They want to play by the rules and regulations. They have a great thing going, and they don’t want to lose their licenses,” Martin said.

Whereas Barnes believes his department receives about 200 percent more calls related to marijuana, Martin said things settled down in Crested Butte within about six months of retail stores opening.

“At first we saw that there was a real problem with the edibles,” he said, particularly related to dosages. “We saw some pretty bizarre behavior … It seemed to us like it was more of a hallucinogen.”

As people became more educated, however, those issues became far less frequent. And while his office routinely receives calls from Crested Butte dispensaries to check suspicious IDs, in general Martin’s officers deal with more alcohol-related incidents than marijuana.

One thing that does stand out within the community is the role that law enforcement and community leaders, including dispensaries, have played in educating marijuana consumers. Through GCSAPP, Commerford brought several community players together about a year and a half ago, including the hospital, the Center for Mental Health, local law enforcement agencies, the chambers of commerce, the Tourism Association and Public Health.

“We all sat down and said the Fourth of July is coming up. There are going to be tourists in town, and what are we going to do to make sure they don’t dispose of marijuana where kids can get it,” Commerford said.

The group created the Pass the Knowledge campaign to educate tourists on how to safely consume and dispose of marijuana. They also worked together to install amnesty boxes at the airport and in Crested Butte, where tourists can dispose of unused marijuana before leaving the state. The airport, Commerford said, emptied the box twice a week during the busy season.

Interestingly, between 2009 and 2015, the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey shows that kids in the community have increased access to marijuana but report a slight decrease in use in all areas except for grade 12. That’s a positive sign, but doesn’t mean that kids aren’t affected by marijuana.

About two years ago, GCSAPP worked with high school and middle-school-aged kids to create marijuana messages. The middle school kids came up with a comic strip called “Sorry Dude” in which the people in their lives were unavailable to ski, make a home cooked-meal or spend time with them because of marijuana use.

“What it opened our eyes to was that it’s affecting them in different ways… Most people think that if kids see people doing drugs, they will do drugs. But they can also experience a lack of availability from parents and other friends or important people in their life who are using.”

That’s where parent education comes in, teaching adults how to talk to kids about marijuana – parents have more opportunities to do so now that marijuana has a more visible presence and doesn’t always come easily.

Yet as county commissioner Jonathan Houck, who worked with GCSAPP before being elected, pointed out, the community is good at having honest conversations.

“I think the GCSAPP approach has been honest conversations about drugs and alcohol. A couple folks asked me if it makes it worse for kids [to have legal marijuana],” Houck said. “We’re in a community that promotes good conversations with kids. With my own children, I have had good, honest conversations about marijuana…

“We can listen to voters, and we can also work with kids. It’s not easy, but it’s still important to have those conversations whether we have marijuana legal or not legal in the community.”

And perhaps, if there’s one main takeaway from examining the local retail marijuana industry, it’s just that: the community has in-depth, open conversations. Whether it’s local leaders coming together to discuss marijuana education, GCSAPP hosting parent education nights, or the city of Gunnison coming back around on the issue of legalized marijuana, the pros and cons are always being noted, evaluated, and acted on. No doubt that will continue as the industry evolves.

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker
Full Article: Retail Marijuana In The Gunnison Valley
Author: Alissa Johnson
Contact: Crested Butte News
Photo Credit: iStock
Website: Crested Butte News