Medical marijuana dispensary ban vote could cost city jobs, $1000s in taxes, says center owner

Last month, Concerned Fort Collins Citizens petitioned the city council to ban medical marijuana dispensaries in the community, which up until now has been among the state's most progressive regarding MMJ. Now, the issue is headed for a vote on November 1 -- and center owner Steve Ackerman concedes that pot-shop supporters face a tough task to prevent the loss of 21 dispensaries and hundreds of thousands in tax revenues.

"It is probably a strategy on the part of our opposition to throw this onto a school board election," notes Ackerman, who's the owner of Organic Alternatives and the president of the Fort Collins Medical Cannabis Association. "And also on the ballot is a sheriff-backed effort to raise a tax to increase the size of our jail in Fort Collins. Coincidence?"

Doubtful. Medical marijuana advocates believe many of the dispensary bans that passed in November 2010 did so in part because votes took place during a non-presidential election -- the sort that attracts relatively few younger citizens likely to be sympathetic to MMJ, and more older folks presumably hostile to it. This effect could be further amplified by a vote that doesn't coincide with races for governor or members of Congress.

As such, Ackerman concedes that "it's going to be a challenge -- but it's a challenge we're ready to meet. We have a strategy for a low-turnout election."

Concerned Fort Collins Citizens' website contains almost no information -- but in public statements and before city council, members argued that the blossoming of the medical marijuana industry in their hometown has led to more pot smoking by people who have no medical reason to use it, including teenagers -- and they suggest that crime has risen, too.

A robbery yesterday at Herbal Wellness Medical Marijuana Dispensary in which employees were bound and forced to lie on the floor while marijuana and cash receipts were swiped will presumably be used to bolster this assertion, even though such thefts are rare and two suspects in the latest incident -- Ernie Savannah, 39, and Jeremiah Wright, forty -- were promptly arrested.

As for Ackerman, he points to the tax revenues generated by the community's 21 dispensaries -- over $440,000 from June 2010 to June 2011, according to the Northern Colorado Business Report. This total is expected to rise during the next fiscal year, and as Ackerman points out, "more than half of that goes to the City of Fort Collins' general fund" -- something especially important during an economic downturn. And that's not to mention all the jobs that would be lost and the vacant properties that would result from a ban being enacted.

Dispensary locations are key to keeping crime down, Ackerman believes. "Our opponents cite home invasions as being part of this problem, but that's the antithesis of what's going on -- because we're located in commercial zones, where we're easily monitored by law enforcement. We're able to offer the safety and security that people need to access their medicine."

What about the claim that the mere existence of dispensaries inspires underage weed toking? "I guess you could make the same argument about liquor stores," Ackerman replies. "And we are the brewing capitol of Colorado.

"Our main point is that medical marijuana centers are licensed by the state, they're licensed by the city, they're located in commercial zones where they're easily monitored by law enforcement. We're operating under the Department of Revenue's highly regulated model, which includes 24-hour camera surveillance at all access points to medical marijuana, where law enforcement can, through Internet protocol, look in at every facet of our business at any time of the day to make sure we're following the rules. There's no way to divert marijuana grown in these regulated places to a black market, so the idea that children in our community are getting marijuana that originated from medical marijuana centers is preposterous. There is no profit-motive for somebody to come to a medical marijuana center and pay retail prices and sales tax and then try to make a profit by selling it to somebody else."

Ackerman isn't critical of elected officials in Fort Collins. "Our city council and the city staff spent two years, literally, working to craft an ordinance that dealt with the advent of this business, and they did a very good job with it. And we operated under the assumption that we had the blessing of the city fathers."

Not so Concerned Fort Collins Citizens, "who are obviously dissatisfied with what the city council did," he acknowledges. "But they were not involved in the process -- and not because they weren't allowed to be part of the process. They chose not to be involved. And now, they want to ban this industry."

The logic of their quest baffles him. "It is really hard for me to understand why someone would want to do away with a highly regulated model for distribution of medicine in favor of an unregulated free-for-all, which is what has been shown to occur in other communities that have banned the regulated model."

Nonetheless, Ackerman and his peers aren't simply going to let the citizens' group succeed at undermining what he feels is the will of most Fort Collins residents. "I feel very positive" about the election, he says. "I feel positive that we can win, given the chance to educate voters."

More from our Marijuana archive: "Medical marijuana: Is cancer patient Bob Crouse being prosecuted over paperwork snafu?"