Dry Towns Dampen Pot’s Spread

Some Colorado cities, where residents voted in favor of marijuana legalization, are now banning recreational sale, opening a new front in the battle to change U.S. drug laws.

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Last November, two of the brightest spots for the movement to change drug laws in the United States came in Washington and Colorado, where state residents voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

Now that the Department of Justice has said it won’t oppose regulated marijuana use in the two states, there’s another battle brewing over the fight for legalization in America. It happens to be taking place in Colorado once again.

Already 102 localities, including nine of the ten largest cities in the western state which are home to more than one in five Coloradans, have banned or placed a moratorium on the retail sale of marijuana, according to data compiled by Sensible Colorado, a pro-legalization advocacy group.

The bans have hit some towns that voted for legalization in a ballot measure known as Amendment 64 last November. Cities and towns have until Oct. 1 to decide whether they will be dry when retail marijuana sales become legal on Jan. 1, 2014.

The patchwork of bans and moratoriums will leave some residents several hours from the nearest legal store, a distance that supporters of legalization say will allow the black market, and the criminal activity which may accompany it, to thrive. Activists are spreading throughout the state to defend the law and encourage city councils and town mayors to allow recreational sales.

“I don’t see people traveling long distances to obtain a substance that is available before prohibition and after prohibition,” said Art Way, Colorado manager of the Drug Policy Alliance. “The message is, by opting out, you’re allowing the black market to continue in your communities, and you’re also foregoing tax revenue.”

Though Amendment 64 passed by a ten-point margin and was approved by 35 out of 64 counties, convincing city councils to allow retail sale has proven difficult in many places.

Colorado Springs, for instance, supported the law and has allowed medical marijuana dispensaries for years, but the city council there has opted out. In the town of Avon, where voters overwhelmingly supported Amendment 64, the city council chose to wait until September 2014 to decide.

Sensible Colorado has dispatched hundreds of volunteers to lobby local officials to their side. Their biggest disappointment so far has come in Colorado Springs, the state’s second largest city.

“That was kind of our white whale,” said Sensible Colorado’s Brian Vicente, a lawyer who was an author of Amendment 64.

Advocates predict that the bans will be temporary as local governments watch to see what happens to neighbors who allow recreational sales. Municipalities may also be pressured by residents who don’t want to miss out on tax revenue to the town down the road. Eventually, supporters say, retail marijuana in Colorado will look much like alcohol sales in some states: a few dry counties scattered among districts that do sell alcohol.

But supporters have to level their optimism against people like Val Vigil, a city council member in Thornton. The 66-year-old Democrat says he doesn’t support legal sales because, “I don’t believe in the product.”

The council voted unanimously in January to impose a two-year moratorium despite popular support for Amendment 64, saying at the time that it would wait for the state to finalize regulations around the drug (the Department of Revenue released detailed retail regulations on Monday).

The city plans to reconsider the moratorium in early 2014, but Vigil said he’s unlikely to change his mind. Residents supported parts of the law that allow for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana without wanting retailers popping up next door, Vigil said.

“We do predict that this fight will continue on,” Vicente said, acknowledging that the effort to court local councils will continue long after the Oct. 1 deadline. “But it’s important for us to get some of these towns moving forward on the timeline that we think voters anticipated.”