As the legal age of recreational pot for purchase dawns on Durango, one fearful question has dogged City Council’s ongoing debate about which regulatory scheme it should adopt come July: How will it affect downtown businesses?
As of this week, the city announced it is gearing up for a May 6 public hearing on retail marijuana regulations that, in proposed form, would all but ban recreational pot sales downtown.
Yet, the Business Improvement District is declining to take a stand on the city’s proposed retail marijuana regulations. Instead, after commissioning two surveys into marijuana regulation, BID board members decided Wednesday simply to share their survey findings with city councilors.
The first BID survey explored pot regulations successfully adopted by Telluride, Aspen, Carbondale, Leadville, Breckenridge and Silverton, and focused on practical regulatory advice offered in interviews with those cities’ staff members.
Jeremy Nelson, the Durango-based consultant who conducted the peer city survey, said most cities enacted special – but not burdensome – restrictions on retail marijuana.
In Telluride, retail pot is allowed in any commercial zone, including downtown, but prohibited in residential zones.
In Aspen, retail pot is allowed anywhere retail is allowed.
In Carbondale, it’s also allowed downtown and on highways, though stores must be 400 feet apart, signs are restricted and businesses are required to have security cameras and alarms.
In fact, Nelson said, recreational marijuana is being sold downtown in every peer city but Silverton. (To date, Silverton has no marijuana stores.)
Every peer city in the survey reported benefiting from the retail pot trade, including from downtown stores. Across the board, peer cities are finding that downtown visitation has increased dramatically, as have inquiries about vacation and rental properties, Nelson said. And towns are hearing positive feedback from downtown merchants, he said.
Contrary, perhaps, to expectations, “customers are not young stoner kids; the demographic skews toward older baby boomers with disposable income – doctors, lawyers, etc.,” he said.
In Breckenridge, Nelson said, there are seven downtown stores. While Breckenridge staff members reported rising city revenue from a marijuana sales tax, according to the survey, “they’ve experienced no problems to date.”
“There were concerns about parking and traffic congestion but that hasn’t occurred,” he said.
The only city reporting a downside to recreational marijuana sales in city limits was Telluride. Nelson said Telluride staff members reported increased 911 calls “due to baby boomers, who maybe haven’t consumed marijuana in awhile, and are overconsuming edibles.” But he said according to Telluride staff members, the problem is similar to the alcohol-related health problems that emergency workers regularly address.
Nelson said in Leadville, “the person I spoke with said retail marijuana stores increased safety” because, like many cash businesses, retail marijuana stores require comprehensive camera surveillance. One pot store’s cameras “picked up a disturbance downtown outside a local bar,” he said.
Indeed, according to the survey, a Leadville staff member advised Durango to “treat retail marijuana stores just like liquor stores, bars, breweries. Don’t overthink this or overcomplicate this: For small towns, blowing this out of proportion and creating complex regulations will likely create enforcement headaches down the road.”
That sentiment may be at odds with Durango City Council’s current thinking on marijuana regulation. Some regulations being considered – such as expanding the required distance between medical and retail marijuana outlets and schools, colleges, licensed day care facilities, licensed preschools, public parks and alcohol- and drug-treatment facilities from 500 feet to 1,000 feet – are so onerous they likely would preclude the sale of retail marijuana anywhere downtown and even on north Main Avenue.
The second survey polled Chamber of Commerce members and BID email list subscribers about their opinions of potential marijuana regulation. Nelson, who presented the results of the poll to BID members Wednesday, said local opinion about downtown marijuana sales appeared evenly split, with similar numbers of people either urging the sale of pot on Main Avenue or sarcastically insisting recreational pot should be sold no closer to Durango than Farmington, where it’s illegal.
Nelson cautioned that the polling sample was biased, and some of the poll’s questions proved confusing. The results, he said, are neither scientific nor statistically significant. “But it’s better than not knowing anything or hearing anecdotes from your neighbor,” he said.