Eagle County tables retail marijuana decision
EAGLE — Will retail marijuana businesses be allowed in unincorporated parts of Eagle County? We won’t know until Nov. 18.
On Tuesday, Eagle County commissioners tabled the decision on the land use regulations that would allow retail marijuana businesses to open in a relatively narrow range of areas in Eagle-Vail, Edwards, Dotsero and El Jebel. Additionally, cultivation facilities would be considered for rural zones if the new regulations are passed.
Commissioners Sara Fisher, Jill Ryan and Kathy Chandler-Henry listened to an hour of public comment that included testimony from at least one man who traveled from Denver. Sheriff Joe Hoy and Eagle County Schools Superintendent Jason Glass also weighed in among many other pro and con supporters. The commissioners briefly entertained making a final decision before time ran out and then decided it was best to wait.
“It’s generally better to sleep on a big decision than to be hasty,” Fisher said. “And just because public comment was closed on this file does not preclude people from sending their thoughts to us for consideration between now and Nov. 18.”
Risks of teen use?
While Fisher spoke of several reasons why she is both for and against allowing retail marijuana operations, Ryan and Chandler-Henry said they feel a heavy responsibility to act according to the will of the voters who overwhelmingly passed Amendment 64 in Eagle County last year. Ryan also presented some of her own research about the potential harm on children if marijuana is legalized more broadly.
“Many of you expressed concerns about teens having easier access to marijuana,” she said. “I’m a parent myself and I’m also a public health professional by training. I think it’s really important when we talk about issues that have a morality component, which people become passionate about, that we are not solely reliant on anecdotes and really look at the evidence and research that’s out there.”
Ryan said the research is limited to what has been done with cases of medical marijuana businesses in the past 10 years. Nonetheless, she said she was surprised by what she found.
“The literature is counter-intuitive to what I thought,” she said. “You would think that making marijuana legal would make it more available to teens, but in surveys, teens are consistently saying that pot is easier to get from the black market than cigarettes or alcohol, which are regulated. That suggests that with retail marijuana, teen use is likely to stay the same — at about 38 to 43 percent — or even decline.”
Ryan displayed several references and graphs comparing teen marijuana use across the country and said she is happy to share them with anyone who might want to check her research.
Glass and other people opposed to retail pot urged commissioners to at least increase the buffer zone if they allow the businesses. The state law suggests a 1,000-foot buffer from schools and residential areas. Eagle County’s proposed land use changes call for 200-foot buffers.
Eagle County attorney Bryan Treu said any buffer of more than 200 feet would be a de facto ban.
“I do feel like I need to follow the will of the voters, and something that was a 2-to-1 vote, I don’t feel like I can zone this out of existence,” Ryan said.
There is one controversial zone that technically falls within the boundary where a retail pot business could potentially locate near Battle Mountain High School. Treu said commissioners could be “very targeted” about where new pot businesses are allowed.
With that, Chandler-Henry said she agrees with Ryan.
“I also feel it is my job to uphold the will of the people,” she said. “I feel we’ll have better luck protecting public health, welfare and safety through thoughtful regulations than by having it unregulated in the street. It’s an uncomfortable value-driven discussion that taps into a lot of emotions. It’s not as though Eagle County has no marijuana, and I think we’re better off as a free-market society.”
Waiting for Tuesday
Fisher identified ways in which she is supportive of retail marijuana and also expressed concerns against it.
“It’s tough to decide this without knowing the results of the Tuesday vote in Eagle and Red Cliff, and whether those towns are going to allow it,” she said. “I don’t want retail marijuana to be available at every single turn, and the incorporated towns have more control over it than we do, since they have the ability to do business registration. If it’s available in Red Cliff or Eagle, then I think that is meeting our needs. I can see grow operations as something the county takes on in unincorporated areas, where the rural zones are.”
Fisher said it might be best to limit retail pot in unincorporated Eagle County for now and leave the possibility for a future board of commissioners to amend that when there is a better idea how to handle the business.
“That’s what happened in Garfield and Summit counties,” she said.
Fisher then motioned to table the decision to 1 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 18.
“No matter what you decide, it is legal in Colorado for people over 21 to possess or grow marijuana privately,” Treu said.