Medical marijuana in Colorado Springs: Does conservatism in the Springs stop at the bong?

Given the controversy over Denver's medical marijuana regulations, typified by advocate Robert Chase's campaign to recall the entire city council, it'd be easy to assume that the divide between officials and the MMJ community in Colorado Springs is even wider than the one here.

No so, insists Jessica Hogan, who handles communication for the Colorado Springs Medical Marijuana Council. She feels the Springs city council is making good progress toward establishing common-sense rules for medical marijuana dispensaries and the like, despite the community's ideological reputation.

"For such a conservative city to be tackling this topic is just amazing to me," Hogan says. "They're really open to the idea."

The CSMMC was formed last October, at a time when, according to Hogan, the Springs city council was "trying to put a moratorium on the medical marijuana industry. We're a group of folks in the industry, and also people who aren't in the industry. We've opened our arms to anyone in the public who'd like to give us ideas -- and for the past three months, we've been drafting an ordinance for city council."

Hogan says councilmembers Sean Paige -- who last month engaged talk-show host David Sirota in a cage match over Springs politics -- and Tom Gallagher -- known in these parts for voting against a tent-city ordinance in part because he was once homeless -- have worked with CSMMC on the ordinance, which was presented to the public during a February 8 meeting.

Since then, there's been more conversation on the subject, as this document from the March 8 meeting demonstrates. "They're still considering the draft, which we're looking at as a working model for the Springs," Hogan says. "We'd really like to get it passed before the state makes any decisions, but I feel the city council wants to hold off to see what the state does."

Of course, she's referring to House Bill 1284, put forward by Representative Tom Massey, which attempts to regulate dispensaries at a state level via language that troubles figures such as attorney Rob Corry. In this respect, the Springs is similar to many other municipalities, which don't want to come up with a whole set of guidelines, only to see them potentially superseded in a matter of months.

Still, Hogan sees plenty of positives in the Springs acting sooner rather than later.

"There are some bad applies in this industry," she concedes, "and with these regulations, it'll be easy to clear those folks out. Once they're gone, the only competition will be for the best product and the best business models in the city."

At this point, Hogan says, there are north of sixty dispensary applications for sales tax licenses in Colorado Springs, with more than forty such operations in business -- and while there have been a handful of dispensary robberies, she hasn't seen an enormous increase in crime as a result of their proliferation. CSMMC has tried to emphasize the normalcy of such operations by "taking the mayor and the majority of city council on dispensary tours," she points out. As a result, "the public is learning more about what a dispensary actually is, and what they look like inside. It's not just a bunch of people sitting around smoking pot. It's legitimate. This is medicine for people -- and the media has interviewed a lot of patients, helping everyone to get more educated about this."

By Hogan's estimate, the Springs ordinance is "about 95 percent completed," and she calls it "definitely more beneficial to patients" than many other regs in the state. "There are no restrictions on the number of patients a caregiver can have, and folks who want to grow fewer than one-hundred plants in their home -- in their basement or their garage or whatever -- can do that in order to help patients locally."

Disagreements over some elements of the ordinance remain. The council wants a 1,000-feet gap between dispensaries and schools, as Denver has enacted, while the CSMMC prefers 250 feet; Hogan expects a compromise. And she's got some issues about those officials who want to equate dispensaries with liquor stores.

"We're more comparable to a pharmacy in my eyes," she allows. "In fact, we're better than a pharmacy in some ways when it comes to distances between schools. Dispensaries are locked-door facilities -- that's what the ordinance would require. Patients would have to stand outside, on camera, and be buzzed into a building. So no child would be able to walk into the front door. And the dispensing area would be locked-access, too. So it's very hard to walk right in and pick something up. That's a lot easier to do at a Walgreens."

Not everyone in Colorado Springs government is eager to make dispensaries a permanent part of the city's landscape: Hogan admits that "at the city council, you do see a handful of folks who wear little tags that say, 'No More Pot Shops.'"

To reassure such individuals, CSMMC is planning a medical cannabis expo at the Antlers Hilton Colorado Springs on April 18. "There won't be any paraphernalia or medicine there," Hogan stresses. "But we're going to have some guest speakers, including doctors and lawyers, and several break-out sessions to let the public talk to patients and dispensary owners and growers."

She doesn't expect a lot of tension at this event.

"The perception is that Colorado Springs is so conservative," notes Hogan, who moved to the community last May from Illinois. "But people really seem to be more open to this than they may have been in the past. I know several folks who are very religious and they're medical marijuana patients. They believe that God created it and it's here for our use as medicine -- so let's use it safely."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts