Our View: Vote on dispensaries is right choice
May 21, 2011
The Steamboat Springs City Council made the right decision in letting voters decide whether to ban medical marijuana dispensaries.
We live in a representative democracy, and in most cases, we advocate that decisions be left to City Council. Council members are in the best position to research and make informed choices on most issues. That's what we elected them to do.
But the medical marijuana business is not a factual debate; rather, it's a question about community standards. Every City Council meeting on the medical marijuana issue has been filled with passionate arguments on both sides. Even the council is divided — a motion to ban medical marijuana dispensaries failed by a 4-3 vote Tuesday night.
That's why the 7-0 vote to put the issue on the November ballot was the correct one. The only way to know where the community's moral and ethical stance is on this issue is through the election process.
A little history on how we got to this point: In 2000, Colorado voters approved Amendment 20, which made medical marijuana legal for people with certain medical conditions. The amendment passed with 54 percent of the vote statewide. In Routt County, 65 percent of voters supported Amendment 20.
So in theory, a majority of the county's residents think patients who need medical marijuana should be able to use it. But support for medical marijuana use does not automatically translate into support for medical marijuana dispensaries. And given the expansion of the medical marijuana business in the 11 years since the vote, sentiments may have changed.
Dispensaries — facilities that grow and sell marijuana to patients registered to use it — have been in Steamboat since 2009. In January 2010, the City Council adopted policies regulating them, effectively allowing them to operate within the city limits.
The council was charting new territory. There was no way to know exactly what the impacts of the dispensaries would be. Some 18 months and three dispensaries later, the impacts are clearer.
There now are about 1,100 registered medical marijuana users in Routt County — almost 6 percent of the county's adult population. One has to wonder whether the number of registered users would be that high without the dispensaries. And much to the chagrin of some council members, the dispensaries bring with them greater visibility of marijuana. A vote for dispensaries is a vote for increased medical marijuana advertising and media coverage. It simply comes with the territory.
Dispensary advocates argue that they allow for oversight and regulation of the industry, which is preferable to an untold number of grow operations providing marijuana to an ever-increasing population of registered users. And there are countless stories of people who say that medical marijuana is the only thing that adequately relieves the pain caused by debilitating illness. While banning dispensaries would have no affect on their right to use marijuana, it might make it harder for those patients to gain access to the drug.
Finally, medical marijuana businesses provide some level of economic benefit for the city in the form of payroll and sales tax contributions.
Steamboat city attorney Dan Foote noted that more than 100 of the state's communities have enacted regulations allowing or banning medical marijuana businesses. And the Colorado Municipal League reports that 37 communities have voted on the issue.
Listening to the impassioned crowd argue both sides of the issue at Tuesday night's City Council meeting and having watched council members struggle with their own stance on medical marijuana, it has become clear that a vote is the best means of resolving this issue. We urge the council to finalize the ballot issue when it meets in June.