Garfield County commissioners enact medical pot moratorium
June 22, 2010
Garfield County has put a hold on any new medical marijuana dispensaries in the unincorporated regions of the county, starting today.
The Board of County Commissioners this week approved a moratorium that does not affect any medical marijuana dispensaries already in business, county officials declared.
The measure is meant to give the county breathing room and time to come up with zoning regulations, a licensing procedure and other rules governing the fast-growing industry.
It passed by a vote of 2-1 at the regular board of county commissioners meeting on Monday, with commissioner Tresi Houpt dissenting.
Maintaining that the measure was passed too quickly – the commissioners got did not receive a staff memo on the moratorium until the same day – Houpt argued that the board should wait and take more time to think about the possible repercussions of such a move.
“I don’t fully understand all of the unintended consequences” of a moratorium, she told her fellow board members, arguing that it was too complicated an issue to approve without deeper consideration.
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The moratorium was passed partly in reaction to the adoption of new state laws establishing rules governing the medical marijuana industry, which had been largely unregulated since being originally approved by voters in 2000 and has been growing by leaps and bounds for the past two years.
According to Fred Jarman, the county’s chief planner, county regulations do not mention medical marijuana, which means it is not a permitted use within the county’s jurisdiction. Under the new state regulations, he said, the county is required to come up with a set of such regulations by July 2011 or simply abide by state regulations on the matter.
Jarman, who recently attended a conference on the subject in Vail, told the commissioners that their main job would be to come up with zoning rules about the growth and sale of medical pot.
But much sooner, by August of this year, all existing dispensaries are required to apply to the state government for licenses to grow and sell medical marijuana, Jarman continued.
That poses a problem, according to some purveyors and advocates of medical marijuana, who say the moratorium will prevent existing dispensaries from expanding their growing operations to meet the requirements of the new state law.
The legislation, signed into law by Gov. Bill Ritter on June 7, requires all medical marijuana dispensaries to show proof that they grow at least 70 percent of the product they sell.
At the meeting on June 21, growers told the Board of County Commissioners that this requirement would mean that many operations would need to either find land on which to grow the herb, or expand the growing operations they already have. But that, according to commissioner John Martin, will not be possible in the county under the moratorium because medical marijuana is not a listed permitted use under any of the county’s zoning laws.
One man said he had relocated to Garfield County from Eagle County recently after Eagle County passed rules that he said made it impossible to stay in business.
Before doing so, said Michael Grimaldi, he checked with the Garfield County planning department and was told that dispensaries and growing operations were permitted under the county’s rules governing greenhouses and agriculture.
Jarman, however, said he was unaware of any such advice coming from his office and planned to check into it.
Grimaldi said he had invested considerable funds into the business already and worried that the moratorium would kill his plans.
“We have to figure that out, too,” said commissioner John Martin about the legal and commercial complications posed by regulations governing the industry.
He told Grimaldi, “That’s the risk factor [a grower faces] … just like any other businessman.” More than once, Martin said that dispensary operators were taking a calculated risk, at one point comparing medical marijuana crops to corn or other crops.
But others questioned the county’s authority to impose the moratorium, and the validity of some of the opinions expressed by county officials.
Asked whether dispensary operators might be thinking of legal action, Jami Hill-Miller replied, “Potentially, yeah.”
Grower Quinn Whitten questioned Martin’s contention that growing operations are automatically illegal because they are not mentioned in the county’s codes. Whitten argued that growing a medicinal plant legalized by voters cannot be outlawed by the county.
And one grower, Dan Villemaire, declared that other industries deserve moratoriums more than medical marijuana.
“We should have moratoriums on McDonald’s and all the places that sell fast food. I think we have enough of them.”
The county will have a work session on the subject on Aug. 10, and a “confirmatory hearing” on Sept. 7. At that hearing, the commissioners will decide whether to continue with the moratorium or not.