On Thursday, the Ordway Town Council held a public forum to discuss a proposal for allowing medical and recreational/retail marijuana dispensaries to operate within the city limits.

On Thursday, the Ordway Town Council held a public forum to discuss a proposal for allowing medical and recreational/retail marijuana dispensaries to operate within the city limits. The citizen turnout reflected the considerable interest in the community, with over 70 people assembling in the Senior Opportunities and Services Center, the vast majority of whom delivered open testimony.

TweedLeaf, one of two companies proposing the businesses in question, operates a cultivation center and a medical marijuana dispensary in Colorado Springs, with another to open in November and a third in 2018. They are the same group that recently completed county and state authorizations to establish marijuana cultivation greenhouses on the 108 acres they own in Crowley County, northeast of Ordway along Road H.

The Council permitted town residents and business owners to speak first, followed by other county residents. Order was well maintained in a balance, with cross-discussion and verbal disruption prevented, and rude but unimportant behaviors tolerated and ignored. The ratio of proponents to opponents was approximately three for to eight against (with the entire room only representing under 7 percent of the resident population of Ordway).

Around a tenth of speakers brought up the subject of jobs, with a couple doubting how many employees a dispensary could possibly provide, but the definite majority emphasizing the importance of any employment offered. TweedLeaf partner Welby Evangelista cautioned the audience that “communities die because kids move away … the reason why these bad things happen is because there are no jobs.” In his opinion, the local sales end is only a small potential part of the Crowley operation; “no one may come to the dispensary, but on the other side of town” the company is building a grow facility and “hiring three hundred people, starting with this community … we’re betting $20 million on this.”

Evangelista added that construction will also immediately benefit skilled labor, who in turn will spend in the community. Resident speakers phrased their concern in dire terms: “Downtown is dead; there’s nothing that goes on there” said one business owner. “I don’t want the town to become a ghost town,” said another individual.

One person cautioned that the availability of legal marijuana can be problematic for businesses that wish to maintain strict drug testing policies for their employees, on and off of the clock. Another, however, warned that “there’s no jobs in farming,” and expects automation to worsen that situation. “Our forefathers sold off the water, so we’re stuck with that kind of punishment,” rued another. A middle-ground position that “a lot of the same people” are employed at the same prisons they opposed building in the county when that issue was considered “30 years ago … and now we have two.”

Mayor James Gullett followed a neutral policy on the issue at hand itself, but noted that the prospect of adding economic value to Ordway is the council’s primary reason for interest in the proposal. Compared to many other local communities “there’s no infrastructure here” to capitalize on; “they’re on [Highway] 50.” TweedLeaf representatives describe dispensary jobs as paying $13 an hour to start and greenhouse work at perhaps $15 or more, a significant increase over the county wage average of $11.

Similarly neutral during the forum but expressly supportive of efforts to improve Crowley County employment was council member Joe Zemba, who applauded the turnout; “I’ve never seen so many people at a meeting” in Ordway. “We’ve recently created an Economic Development Board … and I invite each and every one of you to be a part of that.” The Board will next meet at 5 p.m. on Nov. 27 at the Town Hall Business Center.

Ten or more persons spoke to the topic of tax revenues Ordway might benefit from, but of this group there was a fairly even split on those swayed one way or the other. Some indicated that the yield was immaterial: “I do not want to fund our county with drug money,” and from another, “I don’t think our town needs it … money is not … and shouldn’t be, the most important thing in our lives.” Others expressed confusion about the math or doubt about whether a local tax would be imposed, as council suggests, leaving the city to receive only a relatively small share from the state’s rate.

However, one resident noted that “they’ve not had any problems with it” in rural areas of other states, such as Oregon, and that “for the benefit of the town, we should think about it.” “We could use the money in this town, instead of just letting the slumlords” dominate the market, opined another. Some opponents, such as Superintendent of Crowley County School District Scott Cuckow, didn’t support the measure but did allow that revenue from it could provide services, such as a security resource officer (SRO) for the district.

A more cynical view was simply that “we don’t know what kind of money it’ll be … maybe none of the money will come to this town,” and on this point, proposal representatives did not necessarily disagree. Given the coming presence of the grow facility, “it would make sense to have a dispensary locally,” but no particular market research has been done to substantiate demand. The company expressed willingness, even enthusiasm, for paying whatever taxes might apply, but made no promises how much might be sold.

Related both to taxes and to security, TweedLeaf did emphasize that zero product ever goes unaccounted for: “Our point-of-sale system, on a nightly basis, uploads to the state,” said Evangelista, and company partner Chris Peterson emphasized this again (“down to the gram; down to the penny”).

Weighing the prospect of gain versus whatever risks might exist, measured or only suggested, will be a crucial part of how the Ordway City Council makes its decision. Some 8 percent of speakers instead gave some version of “put it to the ballot” in their statements, with nobody speaking against the idea. One stated that the issue was bigger than members “should have on your consciences” while another asserted “you serve us.” A third wryly recommended: “put it to a vote … so that you won’t be unpopular like the county commissioners are right now.”

A significant motivator for this caution is the popular perception of marijuana as a “gateway drug,” a matter where opinion seems to determine choice of research more than research determines choice of opinion. Some six speakers expressed some version of the idea that marijuana use, provides a direct path to the eventual use of opioids. None provided a guess as to specific cause and effect, but two described witnessing at least the correlation in their own life experiences. “If it leads one person to drugs, that’s too many,” said one, while another said that a teenaged son who “got into selling marijuana” later had opioid addiction (“I disowned him for more than a year”).

Proponents, however, suggested that if a gateway effect exists, legal dispensary marijuana is a way to defeat it, under the idea that people seeking the drug need not seek out black market connections (who might also be able to obtain opioids) in order to get it. “I don’t think that a marijuana store is going to make a damn bit of difference” in illegal drug use or other crime, bluntly put one business owner. Another supporter expects more: “You open a dispensary … you’ll shut down the black market.”

In turn, a significant motivator for supporters is the belief or experience that marijuana offers significant medical benefits; about a fifth of speakers commented on this topic, although one in three were expressing their doubts that such value exists (“there is no valid research that I have found”). Anecdotal evidence was cited by both opponents and advocates of the dispensary proposal, although only the latter presented such experience as firsthand.

In other words, no speaker declared that their own use of marijuana had harmed them personally, but instead suggested that it was harmful to others, leading to “overdoses” and “babies born in detox” in Pueblo, or causing a sort of psychosis that would lead a soldier in a war zone to charge unheeding into enemy fire. In contrast, those who expressed their belief that marijuana offers medical value often cited their own symptoms and associated relief.

Such testimonials were repeatedly paired with revulsion for prescription medications (including opioids). “If it weren’t for marijuana, I wouldn’t be able to stand … I would rather [that] than take oxycontin” said one. “I lost my hair; I cannot have children due to the medications I was put  — they said it was safe” said a woman, choking up on the words. “I have a permanent rash, scarring, from pharmaceutical drugs” said a third, while Chris Peterson described marijuana as serving him personally to better effect than any other prescription psychotropic medication. Several individuals referred to the impact of chronic pain on their lives. One opponent, however, suggested that it would be better to have pharmaceutical companies produce drugs from “the chemicals inside” rather than for people to utilize the whole plant.

The most oft-commented single aspect of the proposal is how it could relate to local law enforcement, with about 30 percent of speakers expecting impact one way or the other. There was a nearly even split between those who felt that increased revenue and private security would improve community safety overall, with slightly more suggesting that crime would worsen after a dispensary opened.

One supporter commented of such a possible store, “hell yeah, I’d like to live around it,” with the security cameras and police scrutiny, “I’m safer living by it.” Evangelista noted that the greenhouses would be supported “by our own private security” hired after construction. An Ordway resident, saying things were much different in a previous part of the country he’d lived in, glowingly spoke of the attentive law enforcement presence in the town: “I haven’t locked my doors since I got here.”

Opponents’ perceptions of the potential danger were much different. “I’ve had people who were high looking in my windows,” one woman said. Another believed a recreational dispensary “on Main Street in Rocky Ford” had been closed down “because it had been broken into so often” (Rocky Ford voters will decide this November whether to allow recreational stores in their city for the first time). A further resident said that after opening dispensaries, Walsenberg, Colorado had seen its crime go “through the roof” and even that “there’s been murders” in that town, though the connection between marijuana and such homicides was not specified.

Related to the potential issue of law enforcement, but a subject almost exclusively commented on by opponents alone, is the suggestion that “riffraff” and “shady folk” will be drawn to Ordway by a marijuana dispensary. Such terms or similar language was used by the greatest single share of speakers, almost a quarter of all commenters, to allude to people held to be somehow entirely undesirable by the “normal” portion of the community for generally unspecified demographic, economic or personal reasons.

One woman warned that “all these people that come into town and say ‘oh, I’m gonna work at that dispensary’” will then become criminals “and break into places” when that ambition doesn’t pan out. Some educators blamed marijuana for parental disengagement leading to poor school performance for the children of users; another individual said that “I attribute a lot of that” local economic decline in recent years “to the state legalizing marijuana.” “I really don’t think it needs to be brought into town … what is our community coming to?” asked another.

Some speakers connected marijuana to ‘undesirable persons’ in terms of a direct link to state or local immigration. “There’s so many people here that moved into the state of Colorado that we didn’t want here to begin with,” said one. Another said that “since June, there have been a number of new families that have moved into our community, and folks, they will not add to our community.” At least one proponent, however, thought that most legal marijuana use would be local; “the people who will be imbibing already live in this town.”

At the furthest extreme, this perspective served to describe whole communities in Colorado as hopelessly ruined already by their experience with marijuana dispensaries. Former Mayor of Ordway Randy Hayes stated that “Pueblo, they’re rated in the top 10 worst cities in America; that’s a fact … it’s a fact that the crime rate has gone up in Pueblo, and that it’s one of the worst cities in America.” A town resident said that “Pueblo’s jails are overloaded” and that “the panhandlers” are widespread in that city, implying a connection between those situations and legal marijuana. Trinidad received an even rougher evaluation by another speaker: “I’ve been through Trinidad, and I don’t think that depravity is worth the money.”

The notion of “riffraff” as examples leads inevitably to the question of whether a legal marijuana dispensary has negative social impact on the children of a community. Some 15 percent of speakers weighed in on this idea, but a slight majority favored the perspective of familial responsibility rather than market restrictions as a remedy. “I don’t know how else to say it,” noted Superintendent Cuckow, “but the people it attracts, I don’t want them near my kids.” Another speaker considered this aspect paramount over revenue or employment: “The lives of these kids are not for sale, and I think they will be affected.”

In contrast, supporters said that “I do believe it is up to the guardians of the children to guide them,” and from another, “you people are just afraid of nothing, because it’s up to you to raise your kids, and they're gonna take your values.” More than one educator did note a sense of personal responsibility for how children of the community are raised, regardless of parentage; “it takes a village” reminded one man. Another resident, however, said that media has greater impact: “your internet… is going to affect them more than a business they can’t be around.” “You’ve gotta be what, 21, to buy it,” as a man pointed out.

A final general area of comment was that regardless of outcome, the issue at hand should not be allowed to divide the population in a lasting way. This was spoken on by about a 10th of participants, and received no disagreement. Alluding to the need for unity, one person observed that “half the community here is prisons.” One opponent commented “some of those who are for it are my very good friends,” and if a dispensary is ultimately built “that won’t change my relationship with them.”

Similarly, a couple of supporters pointed to their entrepreneurial efforts in Ordway, and challenged opponents to do similarly in order to revitalize the local economy with or without a dispensary. “I’ve invested … heavily in this town; I’ve bought several homes that I’m fixing up” said one. Another asked, “those of you complaining, what did you ever contribute to this town, besides paying your taxes? I’m buying another store here.”

A perhaps unexpectedly strong advocate of putting community above all other considerations, including financial, were the representatives of TweedLeaf’s proposal. “We realize that this is a very conservative community, we’re not trying to push anything — we’re trying to create opportunity,” said one, adding “we only want to be in this community if we’re wanted.” Evangelista said, “you guys love each other; we don’t want to be the dividing force” in Ordway, and later noted that highway land on the edge of town “is perfect” for the intended location; “I don’t want it in [the center of] town.” Company partner Renae Peterson emphasized that the future of the operation is more important than a detail like the dispensary: “We want to create a legacy company.”

“I am for business, small business,” commented one speaker, but only the dispensary is planned at a small scale. Evangelista said with confidence that “there’s going to be two thousand jobs” across the operation after years of development are completed. At over a third of the full Crowley County population, that number promises a significant change in Valley employment far beyond Ordway, should it materialize. “There’s no concentration of greenhouses like this anywhere in Colorado.”