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Town toughens medical marijuana moratorium

Tackling the issue of medical marijuana for the second time in as many weeks, the Pagosa Springs Town Council voted at Tuesday night’s meeting to extend a moratorium on medical marijuana centers in the town until July 1, 2011, with the first reading of an ordinance.

Although the council had voted on a resolution to extend the moratorium at its July 22 mid-month meeting, Tuesday night’s ordinance differed from that resolution in two major ways: procedurally, a resolution requires a single vote by council and can be repealed by a single vote. Ordinances, on the other hand, require a second vote by council and repeal likewise requires first and second readings prior to voting.

Secondly, while the July 22 resolution merely placed a moratorium on medical marijuana centers in the town, Tuesday’s resolution was farther reaching, not only prohibiting the establishment of those centers in town but also prohibiting cultivation operations, the manufacture of marijuana infused products (i.e. brownies, cookies or other products using marijuana as an ingredient) as well as prohibiting the delivery of medical marijuana to local patients.

It was the prohibited delivery of medical marijuana that led to the most discussion regarding the ordinance. After council member Don Volger stated an objection to disallowing delivery of medical marijuana into the town, council member Stan Holt responded, “I look at what other communities have done and I agree with them. It’s not about completely banning medical marijuana, what I’m trying to prevent is businesses from out of town making a regular run delivering into the county.”

In the November 2000 general election, Coloradans passed Amendment 20 which legalized marijuana for medical use.

Earlier this summer, the Colorado Legislature passed House Bill 1284 which allows municipalities to ban or further restrict medical marijuana centers beyond state regulations. However, HB 1284 does not overturn the general intent of Amendment 20 and, as such, does not outlaw medical marijuana use in Colorado.

Furthermore, HB 1284 continues to allow so-called caregivers to grow marijuana for the purpose of providing registered patients with medical marijuana. As such, the town ordinance would have no effect on caregivers and their ability to deliver medical marijuana to patients.

Nonetheless, Pagosa Springs Police Chief Bill Rockensock conceded that addressing delivery would be problematic, at best.

“I’m not sure that we would be able to enforce that,” Rockensock said, adding, “It would be next to impossible.”

In fact, Rockensock stated he thought it prudent to consult with the town’s attorney regarding the delivery provision of the ordinance.

Council member Jerry Jackson also doubted the wisdom of preventing the delivery of medical marijuana into town. Stating that the original purpose of the ordinance seemed to give council time to investigate options for regulating medical marijuana businesses (should council decide to allow those businesses), Jackson added that, “Prohibiting the delivery into the town takes this into another direction and prohibits the use.”

Council member Shari Pierce countered, “I’m concerned about the safety issue,” presumably that criminals, aware of a regular delivery schedule for medical marijuana could hijack those providers.

Later, however, Pierce made it clear that she preferred an ordinance that reached farther than just preventing delivery or delayed the establishment of medical marijuana centers, saying, “I think we’re just a baby step away from saying that we just don’t want this in our community.”

Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon echoed that sentiment when he added, “I just wonder what kind of message this sends to our tourists and our youth. To me, it’s an image problem for our council.

Yet, although Aragon, Holt and Pierce leaned heavily towards an outright ban on medical marijuana, the vote to extend the moratorium remained in the hands of council members Darrell Cotton and Kathie Lattin as well as trustees Jackson and Volger. In fact, it was Jackson who made a motion to extend the moratorium, leaving in the prohibition for deliveries, and stipulating that town staff would set aside further investigation of the issue until two months before the moratorium’s expiration. Council approved the motion unanimously.

Council will hear a second reading of the ordinance at its noon mid-month meeting on Aug. 26 in chambers at Town Hall. If passed, the moratorium (and related prohibitions) will stand in effect until the July 1, 2011, moratorium deadline. If council passes a second reading of the ordinance, unless council has a substantial change of heart, only a referendum by town voters (put in place by a certified petition) would overturn the ordinance.

Until July 1, 2011, medical marijuana patients in Pagosa Springs will have few options for treatment. They can wait over nine months for a marijuana plant to reach maturity, they can seek out a certified caregiver in town or county, or they can drive to Durango to fill their prescription. Otherwise, with Tuesday’s decision by council, no other options exist.

More uncertain than getting a medical marijuana prescription filled is how council will revisit the issue next summer. Allowing medical marijuana centers in town seems unlikely, given recent decisions by the board.

jim@pagosasun.com