Feb 25, 2021 | NEWS | By Jon Lamson | Photo by Jon Lamson
With six Colorado Springs City Council seats up for grabs in April, the sprawling upcoming election could have significant ramifications for the future of retail marijuana in Colorado’s second largest city.
Depending on who gets elected, anyway.
This past summer, the nine-member Colorado Springs City Council heard from voices on both sides of a debate about whether city government should put a question to voters in November asking them to decide whether to allow sales of recreational cannabis.
Those in favor, led by an organization called Together for Colorado Springs, focused on the tax benefits and jobs they argued the city would gain by allowing sales. Those fighting it, headlined by Mayor John Suthers, a law-and-order former Republican attorney general and U.S. attorney, focused on the social costs and what he argued could be detrimental effects legalization might have on the relationship between Colorado Springs and its largest employer, the U.S. military.
After a months-long pressure campaign, in July, members of City Council held an informal vote. It failed, but just barely. Five of the nine sitting council members cast their votes against it.
In 2012, voters statewide cast ballots in favor of making Colorado one of the first governments in the world to legalize the sale and consumption of recreational marijuana. The change to the state’s Constitution, called Amendment 64, allowed individual municipalities the ability to decide for themselves whether they wanted to allow sales.
City Council decided against it, never bringing the issue to the city’s voters.
Since then, cities and towns across the state, from small ski villages to large metro areas, have decided to legalize recreational sales. Colorado Springs has remained the largest holdout, though residents can hop across the town line into Manitou Springs where two recreational pot shops are just minutes from downtown. For years, those on both sides of the issue have battled over how long the Springs would abstain from recreational cannabis sales.
While the effort failed last year, the arguments are back.
This time they are playing out in a crowded City Council election where proponents believe whoever wins could shape the future of recreational cannabis in the Springs.
The five councilors that opposed the ballot question were Andy Pico, Dave Geislinger, Don Knight, Tom Strand, and Wayne Williams. In favor were Bill Murray, Jill Gaebler, Richard Skorman, and Yolanda Avila.
Murray, Strand, and Williams are at-large councilors, and are not up for reelection on April 6.
In northern Colorado Springs District 2, Geislinger, a hospital chaplain, is facing three challengers, all of whom indicated that they would have, like him, opposed the ballot question brought to council over the summer.
In Southeast District 4, Avila, the incumbent, is facing a challenge from Regina English, who also supports the cannabis question.
Skorman, the current city council president who is running for re-election in southwest District 3 (which includes Colorado College), has a large fundraising lead over his three challengers and appears to have broad support. However, two of his competitors, Olivia Lupia and Arthur Glynn, have indicated their opposition to recreational marijuana.
In the central-to-northeastern District 6, Pico has since left City Council for the state House.
City Council voted to replace him with Mike O’Malley, a specialist for the state Department of Transportation. O’Malley, a conservative, shares Pico’s position on marijuana. His challenger, Garfield Johnson, agrees, calling himself “anti-drugs, anti-marijuana,” and “pro-family.”
The question about recreational cannabis in Colorado Springs might hinge mostly on the open races in the Northwest and central parts of the city, whose respective current council members Knight and Gaebler are term-limited (Gaebler had introduced the measure to the council).
If candidates in favor of bringing the question to voters win in both districts, it is possible that voters will have the opportunity to decide on the fate of retail marijuana in the near future.
Those running have starkly different views on the issue.
In the race to replace Don Knight in District 1, four candidates are running to represent the area covering the Northwest side of town that borders the U.S. Air Force Academy and Manitou Springs.
Glenn Carlson, a 37-year-old local business owner who has received the most contributions to his campaign — they include donations from three current council members — says he would like to see the question go to voters.
“I think a lot of the fears about recreational marijuana didn’t quite play out,” Carlson says. “I don’t think rampant crime went through the roof, I don’t think everybody became crackheads.”
Dave Donelson, a former Green Beret and the district’s spending leader, is strongly opposed to recreational cannabis, saying he believes there is a link between marijuana and psychotic disorders.
Of the district’s two other candidates, Jim Mason, Secretary of the Colorado Springs School District 11 Board of Education, is opposed, while Mike Seeger, a firefighter, thinks voters should have the final say.
In District 5, which sits in the geographic center of the city and contains the area adjacent to Colorado College immediately north of Uintah St, there is just as much division among a five candidate field.
Nancy Henjum, 60, a leadership consultant and the fundraising leader for the district who was recently endorsed by councilor Gaebler, says she believes voters should decide. She is sympathetic, she says, to arguments both for and against recreational marijuana, and would like to see a broad-based discussion, followed by a vote.
Justin Hermes, a 30-year-old real estate agent who touts his conservative values, also feels strongly that the voters should get the final say. He says he believes personal feelings about cannabis consumption shouldn’t prevent the people from making the decision at the ballot box.
“When you have issues that are this large for the community, to take the voice away from the voters, and leave it up to nine people is not the democracy that I believe in,” he says.
Mary Elizabeth Fabian, a photographer and business owner, however, is flat-out against it.
“We are in a community that is somewhat recession-proofed because of our close ties with military and defense contractors, Fabian says. She adds that they “all have made it very clear that they are against recreational marijuana.”
Beyond questions about whether or not voters should make the final decision, there is still debate over how to bring the issue up in the first place.
Teddy Weiss, the Director of Communications for Together for Colorado Springs, says that bringing a ballot measure through City Council “allows a fair policy that benefits Colorado Springs fiscally, our neighborhoods, and the cannabis industry.”
However, a petition sponsored by the cannabis industry, bypassing City Council, might look quite different than the proposal that was debated over the summer.
Notably, the Colorado Springs Cannabis Association opposed last year’s ballot question for just this reason. The group that advocates on behalf of the industry didn’t like that the city-written measure would only allow 24 medical shops to transition to recreational sales.
Karlie Van Arnam, a District 5 candidate who is the manager of the Pure Medical cannabis company in the Springs, supports the sale of retail marijuana, but says she also would have opposed the question City Council came up with this summer. She worries that by capping the number of retail shops at two dozen, many of the existing medical stores might go out of business.
Matt Zelenok, a real estate agent and yet another candidate in the District 5 race, echoed a similar sentiment. He would rather see the question brought by a non-city-council petition.
This point was also brought up by Dave Noblitt, a District 2 candidate, who thinks that the summer proposal would have unnecessarily regulated the cannabis industry.
Among such disagreement scattered through the district races, there does seem to be an air inevitability around the legalization of retail marijuana sales in the Springs.
In 2012, voters in the city cast ballots in favor of the statewide Amendment 64 question by a small margin, and the proponents of marijuana sales are confident that voters would show their approval if given the specific opportunity for Colorado Springs.
Neal Rappaport, a retired Colorado College economics professor who drafted an independent analysis on the financial impact of retail sales for Together for Colorado Springs, thinks the city is missing out.
He notes his estimates of between $10 and $15 million in tax revenue from the sales. After 27 years in the Air Force, he calls concerns about effects on the military presence in the city a “ridiculous argument,” and says cannabis consumers in Colorado Springs are simply taking their business elsewhere.
“‘I don’t like marijuana’ is not a great argument because I don’t like marijuana either,” he says. “But I don’t make the laws, and the law in Colorado is clear: people over 21 can use marijuana.”
Rappaport chalks up the failure of the ballot question to city politics, and believes a lack of unity among the proponents of the question might have hurt its chances.
“If they get it on the ballot, they’re almost certainly going to win,” he says. “Colorado Springs is conservative, but conservatives smoke marijuana.”