Pueblo was the site of plenty of potshots on October 5, when an anti-marijuana group refused to attend what was supposed to be a peaceful discussion of Proposition 200, which would ban the recreational cannabis industry in Pueblo County. Instead, Citizens for a Healthy Pueblo hosted their own gathering in a church across town — at the exact same time.
Meanwhile, Growing Pueblo's Future and other supporters of the "No on 200" movement gathered at Colorado State University Pueblo, where about ninety people listened to panelists explain the proposition and why they support or oppose the proposal. (A similar ballot measure, 300, would ban recreational marijuana in the city of Pueblo.) Then audience members had a chance to ask questions and make their own comments.
Jim Parco, co-founder of Mesa Organics, a local dispensary, and his wife, Pam, are among the leaders of the "No on 200" movement. Parco, a native of Pueblo, says he remembers when the steel mill closed in the ’80s. Pueblo is still one of the most economically depressed counties in the state, he pointed out, but the marijuana industry has helped lower the unemployment rate.
Pueblo County's retail marijuana industry created 1,308 jobs and brought in over $2.5 million in taxes for the county, according to the Southern Colorado Growers Association. When Parco opened his dispensary, he focused on hiring the unemployed. "When Pam and I started our store, we made a commitment that we were going to try to hire people who didn't have jobs," Parco told the group. "If this industry went away, these people would be back on the street."
Money from the industry is also helping with Pueblo maintenance projects, proponents of "No on 200" point out. At the meeting, Mike Lemon described simple city upgrades, like sidewalks, that marijuana revenue is helping to pay for in Pueblo. "We're funding projects we all know should have been funded thirty years ago," he told the group. "We've got middle-school kids walking in the street next to the buses to get to school. This is widely unacceptable in modern America. It's 2016, and these projects, we simply didn't have the money."
Jim and Pam Parco (front row) with their staff at Mesa Organics in Pueblo.
Bob Gabriel, an investor in Los Suenos Farms, one of the largest outdoor grow operations in the state, and a panelist at the CSU Pueblo meeting, talked about the economic benefits that other local business experience from the marijuana industry. His farm employs 72 people, and since its inception, his company has invested $13.5 million in Pueblo County. "We made a conscientious effort as a partnership to buy everything here, to use general contractors from the area," he said. "All the suppliers, everything we have purchased, down to our tomato cages, to the fencing we hung up — it's all been put into Pueblo companies."
Panelist Roger Martin is the founder and executive director of Grow for Vets, a nonprofit dedicated to providing marijuana to veterans in lieu of prescription medication. He said he can't understand why voters would want to lose all the money that's coming into the county from retail cannabis. "When we get people like Bob and others who are willing to invest millions of dollars, literally, and put that into the economic lifeblood of your community, it's absolutely idiotic, I think, to think about taking that out," Martin told the group.
Bob Gabriel and Roger Martin discuss Proposition 200 with other "No on 200" advocates.
Kate McKee Simmons
According to the Pueblo Chieftain, Citizens for a Healthy Pueblo refused to participate in the discussion because of two complaints lodged against the "Yes on 200" campaign by Growing Pueblo's Future, alleging incorrect use of campaign materials.
During the Q&A session, one attendee showed a handout that had "Yes on 200" in big letters on the front, but no indication of who had paid for it. He'd found it on his front door, he said, and asked the panelists if they had any idea which group had funded it.
Parco explained that he'd filed a complaint with the Colorado Secretary of State's Office because there have been multiple mailers pushing 200 that don't identify any supporting organization or funding apparatus. Since no other group has come out in support of the proposition, he named Citizens for a Healthy Pueblo. "When you're in a campaign, there are rules, and we've had to educate ourselves on the rules," he said. "We're a grassroots campaign. We're trying to figure this out, but by God, we're going to follow the rules because if we don't follow the rules, we're going to be crucified for that — so we're doing everything we can to be compliant."
Just days before he gathering, Pueblo was awarded an $875,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice's COPS Hiring Program to hire more law enforcement officers.
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"Colorado's law enforcement officers put their lives on the line daily and sacrifice so much to keep our communities safe," said Senator Cory Gardner in a statement about the grant. "It's so important that the law enforcement community has the resources it needs to support the officers and their policing activities. I'm thrilled Pueblo is receiving funding to hire new law enforcement officers and bolster their presence in the community."
According to Parco, the sheriff's department busted upwards of twenty illegal grows this past spring; more officers could help eliminate the rest of the illegal marijuana market in Pueblo. He even suggested using tax revenue from the cannabis industry to hire more police officers.
"We are all about compliance and following the law, so when we see people operating illegally, that needs to go away," he said.