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Our View: Navigating uncharted territory of recreational marijuana

At issue

As recreational pot becomes legal, visitors to Steamboat will have a lot of questions about its use.

Our view

A legitimate, well-publicized educational campaign must be launched.

Jan. 8 is the tentative date when Steamboat Springs' first retail marijuana shop is scheduled to open, just seven days after the first day the sale of recreational pot officially is legal in the state of Colorado. With two more marijuana dispensaries having filed for retail permits, it is feasible Steamboat could fill its licensing limit and have three pot shops up and running by the end of next month.

The city of Steamboat Springs has done a good job of responding to the new state law and the local vote, efficiently passing ordinances that laid the groundwork for retail pot shops to operate within the city limits. Voters approved the measure in November 2012, and by Sept. 3 of this year, the Steamboat Springs City Council had adopted ordinances regulating the sale of recreational pot in the city, well in advance of the October deadline.

The city took a cautious approach in its zoning decisions pertaining to the location of these shops, choosing to keep the retail pot stores out of the downtown business district and the base of Steamboat Ski Area rather than letting them be located wherever liquor stores are allowed. We anticipate that this rule, and others, could become rather fluid and may be subject to change as city officials and the community watches and responds to how the issue of recreational marijuana plays out locally.

There are many unknowns surrounding the new state law, including how the legalization of recreational marijuana might affect the state's $17 billion tourist industry and how visitors will choose to partake. But one thing is for certain. Come Jan. 1, Steamboat Springs, and other mountain towns across Colorado, will be faced with the task of educating visitors about the rules and regulations governing the sale and use of recreational marijuana.

With the national attention given Colorado's landmark vote to legalize recreational marijuana, out-of-towners, especially tourists traveling to resort communities, likely will be eager to pursue a Rocky Mountain high, and they will need to know the legal guidelines surrounding their choice.

First and foremost, tourists will need to know where they can legally smoke pot in Steamboat Springs. Can they smoke pot while walking down Lincoln Avenue or while riding up the gondola? The answer to both those basic questions is "no" because the law clearly prohibits smoking pot in public and smoking on federally owned land.

And who can buy marijuana and how much? According to the state law, anyone who is 21 or older can use marijuana and possess as much as 1 ounce. It is also legal for one adult to give marijuana to another adult, but legal recreational marijuana only can be sold through licensed pot shops.

These are just a few of the questions visitors will be asking, and as a community, we have an obligation to clearly communicate the answers. The task of educating the public about recreational pot needs to be a coordinated effort involving the city, local law enforcement, the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association, the lodging industry, transportation companies and the marijuana retailers themselves.

Kevin Fisher, owner of Rocky Mountain Remedies, already has stated publicly on several occasions that education will be part of his approach to selling recreational marijuana. He plans to hand out brochures outlining marijuana rules to his customers.

The Steamboat Springs Police Department also has announced that it will be working with Grand Futures Prevention Coalition on a public education campaign, and we think this is a very important part of the process. It will be important that visitors have access to an authoritative handout, possibly crafted by the local police department, outlining the recreational pot laws in a legitimate, factual manner.

The Steamboat Pilot & Today supports these efforts, and we think that just laying out the rules may not be enough. Educational campaigns about the use of recreational marijuana also should incorporate the message of personal responsibility. Just like alcohol, those who choose to smoke pot need to do so responsibly. As Steamboat enters the uncharted territory of retail pot shops and legal consumption, it's imperative this message of partaking responsibly be communicated loud and clear along with the specific rules governing marijuana's use.