Medical marijuana dispensary closure: City council's Carla Madison defends amendment

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Last Friday, Altitude Organic Medicine's Highlands location held a combination goodbye party and going-out-of-business sale after being forced to close due to a controversial amendment that essentially zoned AOM out of existence.

Owner Brian Cook promises a lawsuit -- but city councilwoman Carla Madison defends the measure that shut him down even as she expresses sympathy for Cook's dilemma.

Here's a Cook-centric take on the situation from one of the items linked above:

"We opened in November, and we've been paying sales taxes -- increasing amounts of sales taxes -- every month since then," Cook notes. But in March, the dispensary was denied a license "based on our zone, which was an R-MU-30 -- a residential, mixed-use zone."

Cook is perplexed by this turn-down, since the code for R-MU-30 encourages commercial retail. "Our attorneys made sure of that before we opened," he emphasizes.

To learn more about the complex issues related to medical marijuana dispensaries and zoning, read Joel Warner's post about the issue, which was published last week.

At this point, however, Cook believes the issue should be moot "because the whole citywide zoning change goes into effect today, and we are now in a commercial zone, not that other zone."

But there's been a complication. According to Cook, council members Doug Linkhart and Carla Madison have proposed an amendment specifically to prevent AOM from continuing operation. And because of the previous license denial, its passage would mean the dispensary couldn't be moved to another location, "which is all we want," Cook insists. "We'd be screwed.

"We're a good, local business," he continues, "and they're trying to bankrupt us" for reasons that he thinks have to do with heavyweight political interests interested in eliminating competition for another nearby dispensary.

According to Madison, Cook's assumptions about the motives behind the amendment in question are simply incorrect.

"When we redid the zoning code, we changed a lot of the little neighborhood, embedded districts to mixed use," she says. "Before the code change, they couldn't do things like expand.

"They were non-conforming uses. But the way our ordinance reads, medical marijuana dispensaries could go into any mixed-use area, and our concern that was during the few days between when the zoning code went into effect and July 1, when the state wasn't allowing applications for new dispensaries, anybody could go in and open up a dispensary in one of those little neighborhood corner stores.

"We got a lot of resistance to that from neighbors in some of the little districts where there'd be one embedded block of businesses surrounded by residential homes. They were afraid that dispensaries would be allowed on those blocks. And many people who don't mind dispensaries on commercial avenues didn't want them in their neighborhoods."

The amendment in question was designed to address this situation, not specifically to go after Altitude Organic Medicine, Madison stresses. Even so, "this one dispensary ended up getting stuck in the middle, and I'm sorry about that. It's very unfortunate. But it wasn't targeted. We had no idea the business even existed, or this situation existed. It was really about keeping dispensaries out of these residential neighborhoods."

Madison and the council eventually learned about the unintended consequences for AOM. By that time, though, she says they couldn't do anything about it due to "the glacial pace of government. We barely had time to get that ordinance into place as it was, and it had to go to first and second reading. If we'd changed it, it would have ended up being enacted after July 1, when it would have been too late. The whole point of doing it would have been wiped out. So we didn't really have the opportunity to change the language and still be able to keep out the small neighborhood stores that were the reasons we'd written the amendment in the first place."

This turn of events doomed AOM, at least for the next year, until after a state moratorium on dispensaries passes. But Madison says, "I don't know if there's anything we can do to help them. Basically, they started their dispensary in a place that wasn't legal, and it just sort of worked out that the timing even allowed this gap. It could easily have been a week or two later, and there wouldn't have been a gap at all. And to close that gap, we had to make the ordinance as simple as possible.

"No matter how good a law is, it seems like there's always somebody who gets caught in the middle," she goes on, "and unfortunately, [Cook] is one of those folks who got caught in this one."

Regarding Cook's promise of legal action, Madison says, "Of course, he can sue. We're getting sued by other dispensaries in other places where people feel they have a right to be. That's part of the game, I guess. And we'll have to see where it comes out in court. But our attorneys feel it's all pretty straight-forward."

True enough -- but the various parties differ about whether that's for good or ill.

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