The legalization of recreational Marijuana in the state of Colorado and the subsequent legalization of Commercial Recreational growing, production,
extraction, and sales by Saguache County has presented us with an opportunity for economic growth while simultaneously pitting neighbor against neighbor. Legal Marijuana is in Saguache County to stay, at least for the near future. The challenges that our community faces can be best understood by looking at a poorly managed approach to commercial business growth, and not to the unique nature of marijuana itself. Indulgence in debates about whether marijuana is ‘”good” or “bad” only serves to keep us from managing it in a way that sets our community up for long term, multi-generational success.
Any economic growth presents risks, impacts, and potential returns. When all three are low, the result is slow, steady, predictable growth. When all three are high, instability takes over, with the potential of high returns outweighing the risks and impacts. The allure of a quick payday encourages gray and black market growers to take more chances, creating a ‘moonshiner’ culture, where every illegal grow is a race to beat law enforcement to market.
When growth is diversified across several areas, risk and impact are reduced, and losses in one area are balanced by gains in another. When growth is siloed in a single industry, risk and impact are increased. Eventually the market tops out and yesterday’s investment becomes today’s gamble. Every individual is responsible for managing their own financial risk, but when that isn’t done the taxpayer winds up paying the price. We need only look to history and the boom-bust nature of single commodity towns. Economic diversification is critical during the build phase of our marijuana industry. Once the county has moved from build phase to production phase, temporary workers will leave and the businesses that feed and have otherwise grown to support them will be negatively impacted. Economic diversification will help us navigate the ebbs and flows of this new industry.
Marijuana has clearly brought growth to Saguache County, and that growth has impacts that translate into costs. Any increasing population will bring with it wear and tear on roads and infrastructure, an increasing workload for law enforcement and code enforcement, stress on the local power and water grids, increased pollution and landfill usage, more traffic and accident events, a greater need for fire/ems/dispatch services, and increasing public health and social service expenses.
Much of the growth we are seeing can be attributed to the gray and black marijuana market - an untaxed market that increases the County’s risk and costs without generating any tax revenue for mitigation.
We can not continue unchecked as we are today. The County will find itself in significant legal and financial jeapordy if preventable harm results from a wreckless surge to build marijuana growth and production facilities without simultaneously surging our infrastructure and public services to scale with our growth.
There is a lack of clarity around who can set up a commercial marijuana business, where, and under what conditions.
The county’s property assessments and zoning records leave much to be desired. The county is currently operating on a 6 month moratorium for new marijuana businesses, but every month applications that were in some stage of progress prior to the moratorium are approved. Businesses that have not yet reached production do not incur any tax burden, so the tax revenue earmarked for law enforcement, code enforcement, public health education, and youth prevention programming has not come to fruition. Conditional use permits are issued based in what’s in the Assessor’s records, even when that information is contradicted by witnesses on the ground.
The County does not collect a sales tax, so none of the six commercial dispensaries incur any county tax burden other than property tax.
We have, fundamentally, done this backwards. As we enter subsequent budget cycles, it’s essential that we use information collected now to project needs for the future, and that needs for the future be met BEFORE allowing additional unchecked growth.
The established legal Marijuana growers and producers may benefit from organizing as a business lobby. Creating internal community standards that meet or exceed the principles outlined in the Master plan would put further distance between legitimate, tax paying businesses and gray/black market growers.
Cleaning up illegal grows is in the best interest of the county’s legal growers, but reluctance to find funding solutions for law enforcement and code enforcement prevents the Sherrif’s Department from rigorously policing gray and black market grows. Low wages and limited affordable housing serve as a deterrent to hiring qualified officers, and so the vicious cycle continues. County property assessments are inseparable from financial management of county resources.
Our marijuana excise tax may be the answer for funding increased infrastructure and manpower costs long term, but properly assessing, taxing, and zoning (where applicable) all county property TODAY is what will move us from ‘planning behind’ to ‘planning ahead’. There is considerable anxiety and some self-protectionism in the fight to properly assess property in Saguache County. I suggest we all find a way to set that aside.