Two years ago, when Colorado voters legalized possession and sale of marijuana for recreational use, the constitutional amendment was helped along by a majority of voters in Colorado Springs.
But a year ago, the Springs City Council voted 5-4 to opt out, and so far only one store has opened in the region — in Manitou Springs, where city officials allowed retail sales.
Now, Springs City Council is poised to revisit the issue by sending a ballot measure to voters in the April 7, 2015, election. Councilor Jill Gaebler argues that a Council-created measure could include regulations allowing the city to "protect our own values," whereas a possible citizen initiative could include language that sidesteps provisions that Council might want to include. But Councilors so far have been moving slowly. And the delays baffle some.
"The reality is we're eight months into retail, it's doing just fine and bringing in tourism dollars, and we're missing the boat," says marijuana advocate Mark Slaugh.
Last summer, Councilors Helen Collins, Jill Gaebler and Jan Martin and Council President Keith King saw five of their colleagues — Don Knight, Andy Pico, Joel Miller, Merv Bennett and Val Snider — vote to prohibit retail sales.
Gaebler recently proposed letting voters decide the issue, and earlier this month, Council discussed adopting a resolution calling for a ballot measure in November. That was dismissed due to what would be the city's estimated share of the general election's cost, about $250,000.
Then Gaebler proposed that Council place a measure on the April 2015 city ballot. Her idea is to impose a moratorium on licensing of stores, she says, pending a task force's recommendations on regulation. Those could include making sure stores are a certain distance from schools.
"How do we protect our community and be sure it's regulated?" she asks. "The best way to do that is to have Council bring forward the ballot measure so we can control what the regulations look like."
Gaebler also says if the city wants to impose an additional sales tax on recreational marijuana, yet another election would be held later. Though she didn't say when, it might not be until April 2017, so that the city could avoid general election costs.
King has offered another resolution, which calls for a 10 percent tax, formation of a nine-member task force to develop regulations, and dictates for spending the tax money, such as programs to discourage youth usage. But Gaebler says King's version is too specific and that even new tax rules should come from a task force.
"It is they who will research best practices from other cities and have the needed information to bring forward the best options," she writes in an email to King.
City Clerk Sarah Johnson says timing is critical. If a resolution is adopted too early, election rules could mandate a costly special election. If Council votes on a resolution too late and it fails, that could hinder signature-gathering efforts for a citizen initiative, for which 19,841 signatures are required. Johnson says she and the City Attorney's Office are researching the specifics and will present their findings to Council on Monday, Aug. 25.
The signature route
Slaugh says Council should honor voters' wishes as expressed in 2012 and allow retail sales. "We don't want to go gather signatures if we don't have to," he says.
It's unclear whether advocates are organized enough to carry out a petition drive, though Slaugh says meetings of the 80-member advocacy group Every Vote Counts draw up to 20 people weekly.
If a ballot measure doesn't arise in some form, Slaugh's group could aggressively campaign for certain candidates for three at-large council seats in the April election. (The industry supported Tom Gallagher in the southwestern district in 2011, but Gallagher threw his support to King midway through the race.)
One of those seats is occupied by Snider, who's seen as a swing vote. He remains undecided — even on whether to submit a question to voters. "I don't know" or "I can't say" are his answers to questions on the subject, because, he says, he needs more information on the "downstream" costs of recreational pot, such as medical and crime impacts, as well as the possible impact on military base realignment and closure.
"There are so many unknowns," he says. "I'm looking to hear more from both sides."