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Medical marijuana ban defeated in Palisade in part due to low-key approach, center owner says

This week, Fort Collins voters approved a medical marijuana retail ban. However, electorates in several other communities rejected similar measures, including Steamboat Springs and, most surprisingly, Palisade, a Western Slope burg surrounded by municipalities that have prohibitions in place. Why did Palisade prevail? Desa Loughman, co-owner of the only MMC in town -- and the entire county -- has some ideas.

"We've been in business for two years," Loughman says of the dispensary, Colorado Alternative Health Care, "and we definitely try to set ourselves apart. When we advertise, we avoid all the skinny little girls with pot leaves on their chest -- the things that don't say 'medicinal' -- and try to stay away from all the negative stereotypes that fall onto our industry."

Palisade, known for its incredible peaches and burgeoning wineries, is located in Mesa County, which is anchored by Grand Junction, the largest city in the western half of the state. Even before Grand Junction began marketing itself as a retirement community -- a campaign that brought in an older demographic -- it was politically conservative, as is the county as a whole. No surprise, then, that the arrival of medical marijuana businesses spurred a backlash. Mesa County voted for a ban in November 2010, with Grand Junction following suit this past April. These successes spurred Palisade locals to push for the same thing, despite the center's low-key approach.

"When Grand Junction got closed down, it definitely put us on the map," Loughman concedes. "And that shocked a lot of residents in town. There are only about 2,000 people in Palisade, but many of them didn't even know we were here." Pro-ban forces did their best to demonize the dispensary. "Their whole thing was, 'This is horrible! Save the kids!' -- even though banning centers doesn't protect kids in any way. With the business model the state's created, we have cameras on everything that prove we're not selling to children. There's accountability to everything we're doing. We're tracked, monitored, under surveillance, and there have been no police incidences at all. We even hand out a parents guide from YouthIsAllThat.com that teaches kids how to turn down people who are offering them drugs and alcohol. We're all about how this shouldn't go to kids."

The center also promotes good business citizenship. "As soon as we opened, we instantly got ourselves going with community service projects and the Chamber of Commerce -- being very civic-minded and business-oriented."

In fighting the ban, Loughman and company took a similar tack. "We did door-to-door canvassing, and we invited people to come and check us out and ask questions. They saw he have a very clean, neutral lobby, and that we're very discrete and respectful in the way we do business. And we had a lot of patients do testimonials. They spoke up and let their voices be heard, and helped people understand that this helps a wide variety of people. Our average patient age is 49, and we have a lot of older people who are patients. This is very new and overwhelming for some of them, but we make it very comfortable for them to come in and learn firsthand how this medicine can help them."

Colorado Alternative Health Care's business has gone up considerably since Grand Junction closed its dispensaries, and this week's vote cements its monopoly. Rather than glorying in this situation, however, Loughman would like to see more competition. Indeed, she supports a proposal in the nearby community of Fruita to allow dispensaries; it's likely to reach voters next year.

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"We have people coming from Rangely, Mack, Loma -- from all over," she says. "And listening to their stories and hearing how difficult it is for them to make the long drive, it just shows it's not fair. I don't know if having a center on every corner is necessary, but I think every town should have at least one."

In the meantime, the dispensary will keep doing business in its own quiet way. "I don't mean any disrespect to the way other people advertise or promote their businesses," she stresses. "We just view it differently, and feel that if we could all clean up our image, the industry would be better perceived."

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More from our Marijuana archive: "Medical marijuana: Red card wait times increasing?"

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