by Matie Belle Lakish

Saguache County Commissioners held their official Public Hearing on the proposed Retail Amendment to the county’s existing Medical Marijuana Ordinance on February 18. Commissioners Linda Joseph, Jason Anderson and Ken Anderson will now consider comments made by county residents, Planning Commission members and other interested parties before making a final decision on amended regulations for the county.  Commissioners had passed an ordinance in 2013 allowing for a moratorium on retail sales until such time as they could review state requirements and fashion suitable regulations for the county. At the recommendation of the Saguache County Planning Commission, which took comments at an earlier meeting, commissioners chose to consider the same regulations for retail marijuana that they had earlier adopted for medical marijuana. Now, after receiving comments from the interested public, they will begin drafting final regulations for retail marijuana, which will be added to the Medical Marijuana Ordinance in the county’s Land Development Code. There is currently a ban on applications for retail permits in the county until regulations are complete. However, commissioners anticipate moving quickly to adopt regulations, which are expected to closely follow those adopted by the state.

State regulations are quite detailed already. Penalties for violating them are significant, and federal prohibitions against marijuana remain in place. Draft regulations can be found on the Saguache County website, while state regulations are found on the Colorado Department of Revenue site.

Currently, the county’s draft regulations concern such things as parking, lighting, water supply and sewage disposal, and new county regulations will apply only within un-incorporated Saguache County.  Within town limits of Crestone and Moffat, as well as Center and Saguache, municipalities are responsible for their own land use decisions and legal codes, as long as they conform to state law. Some towns have opted to put bans on recreational marijuana facilities, as the county has, while others are moving ahead with their own regulations. The Town of Crestone has not yet finalized their requirements, and Mayor Kairina Danforth said the town has extended its moratorium for another 12 months until February of 2015. Center and Saguache also have moratoriums, but Moffat Mayor Brian Morgan, who attended the hearing, said Moffat is moving forward.

Draft regulations state: “In addition to all Conditional Use Permit requirements, the following will also be required for the three types of Medical Marijuana requests and all dual operations allowed within State of Colorado Amendment 64: Medical Marijuana Centers, Optional Premises Cultivation sites, Manufacturers of Infused Products and Retail Marijuana Centers.” Diane Dunlap, who anticipates opening a retail marijuana store in Moffat, commented that it had been suggested that commissioners include Testing Facilities in the list of regulated types of facilities.  She said she doesn’t anticipate that anyone would establish such a site in the the San Luis Valley because of the valley’s remoteness from large urban centers, but it could be included in case someone did want to do so at some point in the future. She said that, starting in October, each batch of retail marijuana has to be tested by a testing facility and properly labeled before it can be sold. The two facilities currently functioning, one in Denver and the other in Washington State, are overwhelmed with requests for their services.  Ken Anderson asked what the consequences would be if that class of facility was not included, and County Attorney Ben Gibbons replied that it might not then be subject to county regulation.

Josh Wright, from the Sargents Store, asked about Section IV7.2.3 of the proposed code, which addresses a 1000 ft. proximity to other facilities, including child-care, educational, houses of worship and liquor stores. The Sargents Store is an all-purpose commercial facility, about the only thing in town. It currently has a 3.2% beer license, which, according to Wright, is not classified as liquor. He asked for a definition of liquor as well as the 2-year residency status requirement. Land Use Administrator Wendi Maez said those definitions are a state issue, not something the county can define.

There were a few questions on taxation. As a result of the election in November, the state provides for a 15% excise tax to go to schools, and a 10% sales tax to go to enforcement of regulations.   Attorney Gibbons responded that, at the moment, the county would collect its normal 1% sales tax.

Another attendee from Gunnison County mentioned the difficulty in doing business when many banks do not recognize the legality of marijuana. He noted that it is pretty much a cash economy at this time, although according to Dunlap, Washington State has recently renewed its State Bank Contract with Bank of America, which has agreed to accept marijuana accounts.

It is clear that Colorado is breaking ground in the legalization of a substance which has been widely used for generations, but which has been an underground economy with no formal guidelines. Commissioners realize that, as with the county’s oil and gas regulations that are being copied by other counties, Saguache County may be leading the way in this new regulatory endeavor. The long-term outcome is far from certain.