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Squabble over Pueblo County retail sales and a plant-count vote in the Springs


Plant limit backers live near grows. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • Plant limit backers live near grows.

Sued in Pueblo

A Pueblo resident is suing to roll back a ballot initiative that's trying to roll back retail pot in the county. That initiative, pushed by a group called Citizens for a Healthy Pueblo, is unconstitutional according to the complaint filed this week in district court asking for injunctive relief.

Local attorney Dan Oldenburg and tree-services company owner Kenny Gierhart filed for a petition on April 8. Pueblo County Clerk and Recorder Gilbert "Bo" Ortiz certified it a few days later, saying they'd need signatures from 5 percent of registered county voters to make it onto the ballot. The question asks voters if they want to ban retail marijuana facilities, including cultivation, infused-product manufacturing, testing and stores.

Plaintiff Micheline Smith (represented by Denver law firm Holland and Knight) contends 5 percent is too low a threshold. The complaint's central argument is that because Amendment 64 declares "marijuana should be regulated in a manner similar to alcohol," the petitioners should need to get signatures from 15 percent of registered voters, as is required by the statute pertaining to citizen-led bans on alcohol sales.

Clerk Ortiz stands by his decision. "I can't talk too much about it because we're going to court, but I wouldn't have gone forward with it if I didn't think it was the right call," he told the Independent.

Former Pueblo County Sheriff Dan Corsentino disagrees.

"Both the letter and the spirit of Amendment 64 explicitly states that marijuana in Colorado is to be regulated like alcohol," he said in a statement. "The majority of voters in Pueblo agreed with the legalization of retail cannabis on those grounds."

Corsentino is now spokesman for the pro-pot Growing Pueblo's Future campaign. "Our group supports this lawsuit, in order to protect living wages in our town as well as to keep tax dollars here in Pueblo County instead of elsewhere," he continued. "This is about standing up for the over 1,300 jobs and over $3 million in tax revenue that our opposition is set on eliminating. As we all move forward, we simply ask that the intent of Amendment 64 is upheld and the will of the voters is respected."

The defendants named in the suit — Ortiz, the Pueblo County Board of Commissioners and the two petition-filers — have yet to file a response.

One vote away

Colorado Springs City Council took its first vote last Tuesday on a proposed ordinance that would limit residential marijuana grows to a maximum of 12 plants. The ordinance passed with a unanimous vote after passionate testimony from supporters and opponents of the measure.

Both sides agreed there are illegitimate operations violating existing state and federal law and shipping marijuana out of the state. And both sides agreed there are medical patients with legitimate reasons to grow and consume cannabis. But as for how many home grows belong to patients vs. criminals, here's a sketch.

There are 185,041 residential homes in Colorado Springs, according to the state demography office's most recent count. Federal agents with the Drug Enforcement Agency told Council they're aware of around 186 homes in the area that have been converted to large-scale grow operations allegedly trafficking marijuana across state lines. Commander Sean Mandel of Colorado Springs Police Department's Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence Unit agreed with that estimate when asked how many of this scary variety exist in the Springs.

That 186 out of 185,041 is 0.1 percent.

Owner of the Speakeasy Vape Lounge and City Council hopeful Jaymen Johnson acknowledged that those 0.1 percent of grows are a problem. "But what we're referring to is a very small faction, not the majority of our community whatsoever," he said, adding, "Also I just want to reiterate that everything that has been brought up already is illegal."

It's true that growing more than 36 plants is already illegal in El Paso County. Out-of-state trafficking, of course, violates federal drug laws.

Criminal penalties are attached to the new plant-count ordinance — a fine of no more than $2,500 and jail time no longer than 198 days — though the city's zoning and law enforcement divisions say that for those who they deem to be legitimate caregivers, that would be a last resort. Compliance is the No. 1 priority, according to Mandel.

Before the vote, Councilor Larry Bagley, who brought the measure from the city's marijuana task force to Council, explained that he just wants to give law enforcement more tools to do their job.

Tuesday's vote did not seal the deal. The ordinance will get its second and final reading on May 10.

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