Medical marijuana: Fort Collins voters to decide about retail ban (again)

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Last November, Fort Collins voters elected to shut down all medical marijuana dispensaries within city limits, with the MMCs closing by midnight on Valentine's Day.

Now, a group of pro-dispensary supporters is hoping voters will bring the industry back to the northern Colorado town.

Former dispensary owners and union workers from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7 collected about 9,000 signatures in favor of the initiative -- more than double the 4,214 needed to put the measure before voters, and about 1,500 beyond what the pro-ban contingency turned in last July. Yesterday, the Fort Collins city clerk confirmed that the office had received the signatures.

Former Organic Alternatives dispensary owner Steve Ackerman was shut out by the ban and has helped lead the charge in overturning it since last year. He says that because this year is a presidential election, more voters in general will be turning out, including those he feels look favorably toward medical marijuana centers in the city.

The repeal would remove the ban and allow dispensaries within the Fort Collins city limits, as long as they are more than 1,000 feet from schools and playgrounds and at least 500 feet from daycare centers and churches. The proposal would also limit the number of dispensaries to one for every 500 medical marijuana patients.

Ackerman is uncertain if the limitation would be based on the number of patients in the city or county. Based on Department of Public Health and Environment patient statistics from April, Larimer County numbers would limit the number of shops to about ten -- down from the the 21 that were operating before the ban went into effect. Ackerman says the limitations would help the image of the industry in Fort Collins.

"The way that medical marijuana dispensaries came into being was somewhat of a free-for-all," Ackerman concedes. "People looked at the early days of dispensaries and said, 'We don't want this.' I can understand that and agree with them. But after the Department of Revenue and the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division got involved and set up regulations...it was a different story than what was depicted by the [pro-ban contingency].

"Another thing: People don't want to see what you guys have in Denver," he adds. "South Broadway with dispensary after dispensary, with the marijuana leaves on the signs and everything else.... In Fort Collins, we'll have a different way of doing it here. It will be less in-your-face business."

The talking points of Concerned Fort Collins Citizens, the group that pushed the ban, included the vague assertion that medical marijuana centers had increased "crime and delinquency" in the city since their proliferation in late 2008.

Speaking on behalf of CFCC, former Fort Collins mayor Ray Martinez dismissed the repeal efforts as well as medical marijuana in general -- which he insists is being abused by the majority of patients.

Page down to read more of Ray Martinez's arguments against overturning the MMJ ban in Fort Collins. "I think they just want a second shot at putting another slant on what they want the voters to believe," he says. "They want medical use for people who don't need it for medicinal use. The ones who do need it for medicinal use have been getting it for ten years without a storefront."

Martinez went on to say that repealing the dispensary ban would be made obsolete if voters approve the Amendment 64, the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, which would allow for retail sales and decriminalized possession of limited amounts of marijuana.

"In some respects, they lose either way," Maritnez maintains. "If the statewide initiative passes, it renders the medicinal stores useless."

Martinez points to the high cost of going to a doctor and paying the state to receive a medical marijuana card as major factors that would contribute to the decline of the MMJ industry if Amendment 64 passes.

That almost sounds as if he's in favor of recreational marijuana stores over medical marijuana stores. But Martinez refuses to say whether or not CFCC would push a ban of recreational marijuana storefronts should Amendment 64 be approved. He calls it a "moot point," because he's not sure whether or not Amendment 64 would allow for local municipality bans.

FYI, Ray: It does.

And although Martinez assures us that his group based its MMC ban on the ability to prohibit dispensaries by law and not on principle, it isn't hard to see how an organization opposed to state-legal medical marijuana sales in Fort Collins wouldn't feel just as negatively toward recreational-cannabis stores.

Ackerman admits that even if the repeal is passed, the fear of another attempt to approve a ban during an off-year election has made most dispensary owners gun-shy about opening up again. "My indication that I have gotten so far [from other owners] is that they certainly have not been showing a great degree of interest," he admits.

"The way that it is set up with the local option, this could go on and on until somebody at the state level does something to change it," he continues. "Maybe to say that it can only happen in presidential election years or something like that. Our hope is that the voters in the community will tire of it after two go-arounds with it, and say, 'Hey, this is a good thing for our community.'"

Proponents of overturning the ban say that closing the shops forced medical marijuana patients away from regulated, monitored and state-legal dispensaries and into private homes. UFCW organizing director Mark Belkin believes the ban has also cost the town hundreds of jobs and will cut off nearly $500,000 in taxes in the first year alone.

More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: Brandon Coats filing argues using MMJ is a lawful activity" and "Marijuana: Elisa Kappelmann acquittal ends another wasteful pot prosecution, attorney says."

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