Representatives of the cannabis industry and local government are negotiating possible modifications to a moratorium on marijuana businesses imposed by the Pueblo County commissioners during the statewide stay-at-home order to limit the spread of COVID-19. The moratorium, passed April 7, bans any new marijuana cultivations in the county, as well as applications, modifications and location changes for any already existing marijuana businesses; applicants that were in the local approval process are also barred from moving forward under the current language.
Although there had been some preliminary discussion about a possible moratorium, marijuana industry members are concerned that the measure was approved during a period devoid of their input. Now, several marijuana cultivations that had applied for higher plant counts as well as some proposed dispensary renovations have been put on hold, and business owners aren't pleased.
"I know a lot of other people in the cannabis industry who have a bone to pick with the commissioners," says Scott Smith, owner of Pueblo dispensary Three Rivers. "We were told that we could at least have comment, but somehow, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we're trying to figure out if we're staying open and the employees are safe, the commissioners are meeting behind everyone's back."
Smith says that he'd already invested in updating his dispensary at 83 Magneto Drive in Pueblo County, but he's stopping expansion plans for now. And he's not the only one scratching his head over the commissioners' move. Jordan Embree, co-founder of dispensary chain Ascend Cannabis Co., says that his company's cultivation at 7420 Rex Road in Pueblo was in the middle of a construction project when the moratorium was approved.
“It took years to engineer, let alone secure proper financing...We have been advised by licensing that although the modification of premises was 'conditionally” approved, it is not 'approved' until the building is constructed and inspected; and [the moratorium] will prohibit us from ever receiving the final approval. Obviously, we are in the middle of construction, so that is simply not possible,” Embree says in a statement. “Beyond our individual situation and investment at stake, I am stunned with the way this was approached on a political level."
The Pueblo County commissioners have come under fire for providing public notice of the April 7 vote just hours before it took place, as well as instituting a thirty-day public comment period after the resolution passed instead of before. Commissioners Chris Wiseman and Garrison Ortiz didn't respond to requests for comment, but Commissioner Terry Hart says he's willing to listen to the marijuana industry's concerns.
According to Hart, the inspiration for the moratorium came from residents who neighbor outdoor marijuana farms, most of whom complained about the smell; Pueblo County leads Colorado in the number of outdoor marijuana farms.
"When you cut through the language, it's an impact question. Everyone has a right to use their property, up to the point of where they interfere with the use of someone else's property." Hart explains. "The difficulty we've always had with moratoriums is, when we toss it out to the public, there is a giant rush to the county to get those applications under the door. There was a strong desire to avoid that here."
Hart admits that the moratorium's language "was broader than what we anticipated," and says that the commission intends to update it after the thirty-day feedback period ends later this week. Rules banning premises modifications will likely be reversed, he says, and although he wouldn't speak for the other commissioners, Hart adds that he plans to argue in favor of ending moratoriums on cultivation expansion and grandfathering in businesses or modifications that were already in the application-approval process.
"At the time, we said we'd intend to allow them to do this if they met certain conditions, and they met those conditions," Hart says of marijuana business applications with conditional approval. "The general consensus appears to be that we need to modify."
Still, Hart cautions, "I don't think we'll meet everyone's wish in the industry, because ultimately we're going to settle on language that somehow limits those expansions."
Although Pueblo County was quick to embrace commercial marijuana and hemp after both became legal to grow in Colorado in 2014, there have been several cultivation and sales moratoriums instituted in the county since then, and the commission banned regulated marijuana delivery shortly after the Colorado Legislature passed a law in 2019 opening the door for such services...as long as municipalities opt in.
In addition to having the most outdoor farms, Pueblo County is second only to Denver for licensed growing operations in the state; it also has just under forty dispensaries.
But those outdoor cultivations are likely to remain a sticking point for the commission, Hart says, which could lead to a conflict with a bill currently in the state legislature. That proposal would allow growers to expand and modify their farms to allow for marijuana storage during extreme storms.