Dolores residents and officials continued to discuss allowing retail marijuana sales in town during a public workshop Monday.
A moratorium on retail pot shops expires Dec. 31, and the Town Board is weighing its options. Board members can vote to extend the moratorium, lift it or put the decision to a public vote in the 2020 election.
“No motions or votes have been made on this issue, but we have to make a some sort of decision by Dec. 31. All the options are on the table,” said Mayor Chad Wheelus.
To gather more information, the Town Board convened a panel including Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin, Mancos Town Marshall Jason Spruell, Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane, Mancos Town Administrator Heather Alvarez and Cortez City Clerk Linda Smith.
During public and board questioning, the financial benefits, additional administrative costs and impacts on law enforcement from marijuana sales were presented and debated.
Mancos and Cortez officials were invited for their experience with marijuana shops in their towns.
Lane, Nowlin and Spruell felt that since marijuana was legalized, there has been a general uptick in social and criminal problems in local communities. But they also noted that they did not have specific data on the connection between marijuana legalization and crime.
There is definitely an additional workload for law enforcement in order to monitor pot shops to ensure they comply with state regulations, said Mancos and Cortez officials. Annual license fees paid by pot shop owners also cover town administration costs.
Cortez hired a full-time compliance and enforcement officer to monitor the six pot shops, in addition to the many liquor stores, Lane said, but they also have other police duties. The Mancos Board of Trustees is considering hiring an additional officer to handle compliance and enforcement duties for the three pot shops in Mancos.
“It is hard for our small department to keep up with all the new state marijuana laws, which are constantly changing,” Spruell said.
Dolores pays the sheriff to provide law enforcement, and Nowlin said an additional officer would need to be considered if retail sales were approved.
To cover additional administrative costs and other marijuana-related issues, Mancos voters approved a $3 transaction fee on each sale. In addition, under state rules each marijuana purchase includes a 15 percent sales tax, 67 percent of which goes to the town. The rest goes to state coffers that are distributed to schools statewide.
Alvarez said the town’s $3 transaction fee has been effective at covering overhead enforcement and administrative costs of allowing retail marijuana sales. In 2017, the transaction fee for two stores generated $195,000.
The additional revenues from the marijuana sales taxes are used for capital improvements, Alvarez said, but the exact amount was not available.
Cortez has also benefited from the additional sales taxes of its marijuana shops, said Smith, and $791,000 has been collected so far for 2017. The revenues go directly into the general fund.
“The stores have, overall, been compliant with the regulations,” Smith said.
There was some debate among residents and local officials on to what extent marijuana shops and legalization in general causes additional crimes or social problems.
Local law enforcement officials suspect there is a correlation and believe it’s not a coincidence that since legalization they have seen more social and criminal problems. Drug-related crimes are on the increase in the county, Nowlin said, and marijuana legalization has been a “contributing factor.”
Spruell said there is no way to track whether crimes were committed because of alcohol or marijuana, but he said he has noticed an increase in transients and homeless people in the parks and an increase in thefts since marijuana was legalized.
Lane also said he believes legalization has contributed to an increase in social problems in Cortez. Underage use of marijuana is a growing problem, parents and law enforcement officials said, including at schools.
“We’re seeing it used more by youth than in the past. It is out there, and they know where to get it,” Nowlin said.
Added Lane, “Kids exposed to marijuana and adults smoking around young children is a real problem.”
One citizen claimed that the economy, not marijuana, was to blame for homelessness and that other drugs such as opioids, meth and alcohol cause far worse problems.
If Dolores decides to allow the shops, they need more regulations in order to be ready, said a local business owner. If retail sales were allowed in Dolores, zoning regulations would need to be established on where they could be located based on state regulations, such as minimum distance from schools.
Allowing retail marijuana in Dolores would have economic benefits, said one citizen.
“When I want to purchase cannabis, I drive to Cortez, and when I am there I buy gas and do my shopping, and it would be nice if I could do that in Dolores instead to support my town,” he said.
Cortez and Mancos officials say they see a lot of out-of-state license plates at pot shops, including from Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
Town officials said that if Dolores board members wanted to delay the decision on marijuana sales past the Dec. 31, they could extend the moratorium. If it were decided to have the public vote on the matter in 2020, the moratorium would be extended until the vote.