Colorado’s Pueblo County was one of the first in the country to open up a legal retail marijuana market in 2012, but an upcoming November ballot initiative aims to dismantle Pueblo’s progress.
Question 200 on Pueblo County’s November ballot asks whether or not Pueblo citizens want to repeal portions of 2012’s Amendment 64. Specifically, the laws that allow retail testing facilities, cultivation facilities, product manufacturing facilities, and marijuana stores to operate within Pueblo County lines.
A group of activists banded together to save not only Pueblo County residents’ local access to legal retail marijuana, but millions of dollars in tax revenue and thousands of people’s livelihood within the county. The group, called Growing Pueblo’s Future, has been educating and informing citizens in Pueblo County (and the rest of the country) on the benefits of allowing retail cannabis to continue in Pueblo.
Pueblo County officials have not taken a public stance on the issue, however, they have admitted how much of a financial toll passing the ballot initiative would place on the county.
Aimee Tihonovich, the finance and budget director for all of Pueblo County, explained an affirmative vote on Question 200 would mean at least five layoffs among the ranks of local government. The county asked officials to come up with separate budget proposals for each possible outcome of the November vote.
According to Jim Parco, college business professor and owner of local business Mesa Organics, losing five employees would be the least of the county’s worries. Parco is spearheading Growing Pueblo’s Future and says that passing Question 200 would cost Pueblo millions of dollars in annual revenue and over 1,300 retail marijuana industry jobs.
We spoke at length with Jim Parco to gain some insight into the battle going on in Pueblo County ahead of the November 8th vote.
Marijuana.com: Jim, will you please help our readers get up to speed on ballot initiative 200 and the attempt to repeal retail marijuana legalization in Pueblo County?
Jim Parco: There are actually two amendment’s in Colorado’s constitution that govern cannabis sales. Amendment 20 deals with the medical side from 2000, while what I call “version 2.0” is the 2012 Amendment 64 that covers retail sales. Of Colorado’s 64 counties, so far only 22 have enacted retail ordinances to allow for the production and sale of cannabis in their counties. In the case of each of those 22 counties, it was always done by local officials looking at voting patterns; at how their electorate voted for or against Amendment 64. So a county will look to say, ‘our county voted for Amendment 64 55% to 45%, which is why we have a mandate and therefore, we will proceed with retail through ordinances.’ Of the 22 counties who are selling or producing for retail, never before has someone actually voted on having cannabis in their backyard. To me, this is one of the most fascinating issues because we voted as a state to say, ‘yeah, let’s legalize it.’ Pueblo Country was one of the first, along with Denver, to go into effect on January 1, 2014. Of course, it’s going to have opposition that’s going to do what they can to stop this. The prohibitionists, who I refer to as the C.A.V.E. people (standing for Citizens Against Virtually Everything), are out in force. I think it’s a lesson not just to the people of Pueblo, but that the people of Colorado should watch because there’s a strategy they’re trying in Pueblo. It’s the first time that the C.A.V.E. people have gone into a local municipality and gotten enough signatures to get a ballot initiative put out there to see how it’s going to turn out. Now I’m thoroughly confident that things are going to turn out in our favor, but nevertheless, it is scary when you actually have a population that says, “You know what? We’re going to do what we can to turn this legal industry back to prohibition.” The vote is coming.
In Amendment 64, state legislature made it very clear that marijuana should be regulated as alcohol is. In Colorado, if any alcohol ballot initiative goes to the voters, it has to have 15% local support on petitions. Here in Pueblo County, the county clerk accepted it with only 5%. State legislature even went as far as saying this Summer, to put it verbatim, that marijuana petitions need 15% but we had a public official that made a choice. We now have this ballot initiative 200 that, if passed, would make the growing, selling, or manufacturing of any retail cannabis product illegal in Pueblo County. It wouldn’t change anything with respect to someone’s constitutional right in Colorado to grow, consume, or possess; you just wouldn’t be able to do it commercially in Pueblo County. Right now in Pueblo County, we have over 1,300 jobs employed in the retail cannabis industry and when you look at the tax revenue, we’re bringing in over $3.5 million a year to the county. That’s only going to grow in the coming years and I have to point out that Pueblo County is not a high-end socioeconomic county. $3.5 million for our county is a lot of money. We’ve been able to create 25 $2,000 scholarships with matching state funds for local graduating seniors to go to any college within Pueblo County. We’ve given $300,000 to 4H and FFA programs here locally that support the Colorado State Fair. We have a fact sheet on our website, it’s all there. If this initiative were to pass, the only thing it would do is deprive the county of all the economic benefits of retail legalization, but it wouldn’t change anything with regard to marijuana. It seems completely unbelievable that it’s being considered, but that’s the reality.
Marijuana.com: It seems like it should be fairly apparent to Pueblo residents that if you get rid of commercial legalization, you’re not actually getting rid of it; you’re just giving it to a neighboring county to profit from, no?
Jim Parco: That’s exactly right. In fact, the opposition agrees with this and has even made the point that people are just going to have to drive elsewhere to get it. So all they want to do is get rid of the economic benefits, knowing it will have no impact on marijuana. This group of individuals are just so opposed to the idea of marijuana legalization, they’ll do anything to try to put obstacles in the path of progress. What’s interesting to me, though, is that if their strategy were successful here in Pueblo County, it’s something they’re already talking about bringing to other counties. They’re going to do the same thing, try to bring back prohibition not just in Colorado, but nationwide. After this election, we’re going to have more than 30 states that have legalized in some fashion. This is not just a local problem, this is a national issue. Everyone involved in legalization is going to have to face this in their community. I think there’s a lesson to be learned here in Pueblo County of exactly what to expect and how to deal with it. I think the good news is that people in this community have two years of facts and evidence to show that it’s really cleaned up the commercial property. All the things the prohibitionists were talking about didn’t happen, and the tax revenues and job creation have been beyond our wildest dreams. Things have really turned around. Unemployment in Pueblo County over the last decade has been between 7 and 12 percent, but right now we’re getting really close to 4 percent, which from an economics perspective is the natural rate of unemployment. Pueblo is seeing some of the lowest unemployment we’ve seen in decades. It’s hard to look at the economics of this and even think of repealing it. This is a democracy, so people have the right to voice their opinions, make it known, leave it up to the voters, and see what they say.
Marijuana.com: Is the opposition gaining traction?
Jim Parco: I don’t think they are gaining traction, but rather the other way around. The opposition is looking for any opportunity to put obstacles in the path of progress. At the state level, Amendment 139 was being considered earlier this year. Amendment 139 would’ve limited potency of all flower at 16%. They were attempting to put things into the law that would have effectively dismantled the retail industry. If you put max potency limit for flower in place at around 16%, that in and of itself would eliminate about 85% of the marijuana in the state from circulation. It just turns out that they weren’t able to get all the funding they needed to push that amendment through and get it on the ballot over the summer, so that initiative died. If anything, we’re seeing that the prohibitionist movement is actually losing ground. They’re losing traction, and I think this is one of their final gasps, certainly here in Pueblo County. The point is, the citizens of Pueblo County understand the tremendous economic benefits and they see that good things are happening. Probably 70% of people in Pueblo admit to not using marijuana or not having tried it, but even those people appreciate that it is being regulated, it is being taxed, it is under the most incredible scrutiny of control by the Marijuana Enforcement Division in Colorado and locally. These are all good things. If you really want to get rid of the black market, this is exactly what you do, then coupled with strong local law enforcement to monitor local activity. I think when people look at the facts, it’s very clear that legalization has been a good thing. I’d like to remind people that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but they’re not entitled to their own facts. When you look at the facts, it’s pretty clear on how things are going to turn out.
Marijuana.com: What kind of demographic breakdown are you seeing among the marijuana workforce? Is it mostly young people working these jobs?
Jim Parco: It’s actually not. There’s another cultivation about five miles from us, a separate business, but I know them quite well. The company, Los Suenos, is the largest legal outdoor retail cultivation in the world. They have 36 acres on which they grow 21,800 plants. They employ between 70 and 80 people, and when I walk through the gates, it looks like our county. It looks like America. You have people in their twenties and thirties, some in their forties and fifties, and even a few in their sixties and seventies that just like to garden and work in the greenhouses. When you look at it, it’s everybody. When you look at the industry, these are not entry level, minimum wage jobs. The average pay starts between $10 and $15 per hour and it goes up from there. In a place like Pueblo, that’s very working class, this is nothing but good news for all demographics.
Marijuana.com: Is the opposition targeting older people with their marketing who may not be fans of having scores of trimmers or budtenders working in their county?
Jim Parco: What we do see on a national level with regard to prohibition, is that people against legalization are typically older, while the people who tend to be for legalization are younger. I think that’s attributed largely to all of the anti-drug programs that were run so aggressively in the sixties, seventies, eighties, and into the nineties with the D.A.R.E. program and others. These programs were very successful in preaching how bad recreational drug use was; talking about crack cocaine, meth, heroin. These are all horribly addictive drugs, very dangerous substances that can actually change your body’s physiology after just a single use. The problem is they threw marijuana in their curriculum. Why? Because it was deemed illegal like everything else. It was being sold by the same guy that was selling everything else. The whole “gateway” hypothesis is such a fallacy. We see no addictive nature, you can’t poison yourself on this. Marijuana is no more of a gateway drug than milk or coffee. If you want to know what the real gateway drug is, it’s alcohol. Nevertheless, the older generation saw people doing hard drugs and marijuana got thrown into it. It’s very difficult for them to open their mind and look at the facts as they are. As a professor, I hadn’t even seen a cannabis plant until about three years ago. I took a sabbatical from teaching business economics at a small liberal arts college in Colorado Springs. The students were really interested in this new industry, and I knew I had a professional obligation to learn all I can about the cannabis industry. On my sabbatical, I went and interned with a local grow and dispensary to learn the business from the inside. I started reading all of the research, and I wanted to see everything both positive and negative I could find. I fully expected to find the research somewhat balanced on both sides, but I was shocked. As I started looking, I couldn’t find any valid academic research talking about the negative effects of marijuana usage. It’s just not there. On the other side, seeing all the medical benefits and what cannabis can do for people with certain ailments was mind blowing to me. I’ll be honest, I spent 24 years in the military, and I didn’t use marijuana or care about it. I honestly believed that it was bad. Once I finally subjected myself to the data, and I read it with an open mind, I changed my mind. I think anyone who has an open mind and is willing to look at the data and make fact-based judgments, would probably come to the same conclusions. The problem is, a lot of the older generation knows what they know and will make comments like, “I’m done learning, I don’t care about this.” They’re very unwilling to open their minds, so at least in the short term there is a divide between the generations. The younger generation is data-driven while the older generation by and large tends not to be. This is a stereotype that obviously isn’t correct across the board, but there’s some legitimacy there.
Marijuana.com: Historically, the younger generations tend to be on the right side of progress with regard to social justice issues, and this is no different.
Jim Parco: This has been a very progressive decade: gay people can openly serve in the military, we legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states, etc. When you look at cannabis legalization, we’re finally starting to shed a lot of the bad beliefs that were based in fear. Once you step back and look, you realize a way to make the world a better place is to do what is true to the American ideal; let people make informed choices. That is why I think Colorado was the first state to legalize; people who live out west seem to have more of a “live and let live” attitude. Regardless of someone’s political persuasion, I think most Coloradans have a streak of Libertarianism in them. The question is whether or not it is having a negative impact on society, that is the crux of the cannabis legalization argument. We have two years of data, though. Despite the fact that the opposition wants to pin the heroin epidemic, gang violence, and homelessness on the retail cannabis industry, they can’t because there is no real connection. It’s very frustrating for them because they know what they see. They see the fact that we have more homeless people in our county, but we’re growing. Anytime you’re growing, you are going to get more of everyone. The question remains whether it is directly related to the retail cannabis industry, but the facts are that we see no evidence. What I see is two northern cities, Colorado Springs and Denver, being much more aggressive with regards to getting the homeless out of their cities. They’re buying them bus tickets for 100 miles away; where do you think they’re going to go? They’re coming south, they’re coming to Pueblo. At the end of the day, I think the one thing that has caused the retail cannabis industry to survive and thrive is how well regulated and taxed it is. These are things that society appreciates. Even if they tend to be against marijuana, they’re more against not having that tax revenue and job creation in the marijuana industry. Cannabis is not going away.
Marijuana.com: What, if anything, can the retail cannabis industry proactively improve to alleviate some of the opposition’s concerns?
Jim Parco: It’s pretty hard for me to critique the Colorado experience because, so far, as a professor looking at the policies and regulations, they’re doing it right from my vantage point. That’s why I am in this industry. I really think Colorado has made all the right calls in terms of legalization. There was the whole Maureen Dowd fiasco where she comes out to Colorado during the first week of legalization to report on it for the New York Times. She goes into a store and buys a couple of infused candy bars and a couple of drinks before going back to her hotel room where she ate and drank everything. I don’t know how much THC she ingested, but there you go. At the time, we were a brand new industry, we didn’t have the markings and the potency limits yet. She wrote a scathing article because she was stoned for about four days in her hotel room. She had a horrible experience, and obviously it didn’t hurt her because marijuana doesn’t hurt you, but she still wrote this article about the lack of labeling requirements and procedures governing edibles. I thought Colorado responded fantastically over the following 12 months, coming out with a whole slew of new regulations for labeling, packaging, child resistant, potency limitations, and homogeneity. They’re getting it right. The only critique I have is that we don’t have federal support. If we had support at the national level and a government that looked to create standards across states, I think all votes would rise. But the fact is, the only patent that exists for cannabinoids to treat pain is held by the National Institute of Health, the same US government that still says there is no medical benefits. So there’s a lot of irony that is out there, but we’re watching the final battles of this prohibitionist era. I fully expect within the next five years that three-quarters of the states will have legalization in some fashion. I think the federal government is going to have to come to terms with this and start doing something on a federal scale to make everything work. They keep talking about making marijuana a Schedule 2 substance, but that’s ridiculous. All that’s going to do is provide federal oversight and make it more complicated. What they really need to do is get rid of the schedules entirely given the fact that the National Institute of Health has a list of lethal dosages for all known drugs. Caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine are all on there. The only drug on the list without a lethal dosage is marijuana. It seems a little bit hypocritical that they’re the ones who hold the patent on it for medical efficacy and they’re still saying there is no medical benefits.
Marijuana.com: It’s unfortunate, but the prohibitionist movement has never been based in facts and actualities, but rather discrimination and fear. How do you combat that?
Jim Parco: We’re fighting that right now, it is the years of the anti-drug movement. For all the good that those programs did, they really gave cannabis a bad name. Now we just have to spend the time to decouple cannabis from all of those other drugs. It’s certainly a lot closer to alcohol and tobacco than it is to other drugs, and even less dangerous than those two. Colorado recognized that marijuana should be regulated like alcohol because that is the class it is in. Just because you may not drink alcohol or frequent bars, it doesn’t mean that it has no impact on you. I think we’re all better off when alcohol, tobacco, and now cannabis, are regulated and taxed.
Marijuana.com: It’s difficult to argue with a surplus where there used to be a financial hole.
Jim Parco: Absolutely, it has been a boon for Colorado. Total sales have far exceeded a billion dollars, which brought roughly a quarter-billion dollars in tax revenue to the state in the two years since legalization.
Marijuana.com: What will the tipping point be where the opposition can no longer argue against legalization?
Jim Parco: They’ll argue it until they die. These ballot initiatives are the same kind of skirmishes you see in battle right before a ceasefire. You have armies that are still shooting at each other, but the war is over. The cannabis war is over, we’re in the final stages. But that doesn’t mean that people can stop fighting, it is still going to be a problem and it is still contentious. We’re seeing opposition like this in Colorado first because we were the first to legalize, but I would fully expect other states to experience the same type of nonsense. Just because cannabis is legalized doesn’t mean the war is over, this will be going on for the next five to ten years.
All Images Courtesy of Growing Pueblo’s Future