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Buying weed: an investment in Pueblo’s future?

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A high school senior suffering from an anxiety disorder wasn’t sure if he could attend Colorado State University-Pueblo because the daily drive to and from campus would cause him undue stress. But in the end the student was given the money he needed to help defray the cost of living on campus, and he is able to make it to classes with a lot less aggravation.

What made this possible?

The Pueblo County Scholarship program is expected to receive $700,000 from the cultivation of marijuana this year. The scholarship was approved by county voters in 2015 and the ballot measure states that primarily Pueblo County graduating high school seniors who plan to attend colleges only located inside the county’s boundaries (in essence CSU-Pueblo or Pueblo Community College) are eligible for the scholarship. County Commissioner Sal Pace, who told a story of the student suffering from anxiety who got the scholarship, is the point man for the county regarding the Pueblo scholarship program. Pace adds that the scholarship is not limited to graduating high school seniors. Those Pueblo residents attending college in the county can also apply. When he is asked why the scholarship only applies to colleges within Pueblo County, he says, “We weren’t sure how much money would be available for the first full-year of funding and how far it would go, but we knew the program would grow over time. This year we will have enough funding to give some additional scholarships based on merit and need. I have a vision of eventually guaranteeing a college scholarship to every local kid.”

Pace says he spoke to several students and parents and received nothing but positive responses to the pot-funded scholarship, which started as a non-marijuana-funded pilot program in 2016.

The majority of the money for the scholarships comes directly from cannabis cultivators who now pay an excise tax each month at a rate of 3 percent of the crops’ unprocessed retail value when the crop is sold or transferred to a retail outlet, even if the retail outlet owns its own marijuana grow house. That tax rate is supposed to increase to 4 percent next year and be capped at 5 percent in 2020. Yet Pace is trying to convince his fellow county commissioners to cap the tax rate at 3 percent this year. Pace says he wants to keep the excise tax rate at its current level “so we don’t drive the small businesses out of business.”

Incidentally, the marijuana money for the scholarship represents roughly half of the total tax dollars collected from pot growers. The rest of the unprocessed cannabis excise tax revenue goes to fund other community enhancement and infrastructure projects.

And Pace doesn’t seem to have any reservations about where the lion’s share of the Pueblo County Scholarship funds come from. “Voters voted for it,” he says, adding, “How do you defend taxes on cars?”

Pace defends the use of the cannabis tax for the scholarship by weighing it against the greater good it would bring the community as a whole. “Our ultimate goal is that the next generation in Pueblo can have a bright future, opportunity for success, and to live their dreams,” he says. “The more educated we are, the more [job] opportunities will come our way.”

Students who benefitted
Twenty-year-old Janet Chavez, a CSU-Pueblo sophomore and Pueblo County Scholarship recipient, also has no qualms about the fact the majority of her scholarship’s funding comes from pot growers. “It [the sale of marijuana] allows me to benefit the community,” says the liberal studies major with a minor in elementary education. “I am able to go to college and to give back to the community in a positive way.”

Also having a clear conscience about cannabis dollars funding his scholarship is Xavier Madrid, who is 20 years old and a CSU-Pueblo junior studying sociology and criminology. “Marijuana has always been seen in a negative light,” he says. “I am just so glad that something so controversial can be utilized in such a positive way seeing that it is investing in the future leaders of America.”

Students receiving the up-to-four-year scholarship, the money from which goes directly to the postsecondary learning institution, are required to perform 40 hours of community service annually throughout their college career. “It’s a great opportunity to serve the community as you’re going through your college experience,” Chavez says.

And Madrid agrees.

“[Community service] has been something I take tremendous pride in,” he says. “For the past couple of years, I have been able to be an assistant baseball coach during the summer, where I taught kids the fundamentals of the game as well as tutor current high school students … . It has not only given me the opportunity to be a role model for those I’ve helped, but also [allows me to] give back to the community that has been my home and was able to invest in me when I needed it the most.”

Chavez, who says she chose to attend college “to receive a higher education and be successful,” would have had to work a full-time job to help pay for tuition and books without the scholarship. Now, she says, she only works part time, which gives her more study time.

Madrid is attending college “not only for [him]self but for [his] family.” He represents the first generation of his family to attend college. Madrid says, “I knew I needed a degree to be appealing to the job market and school has always been something I have excelled in and something I take tremendous pride in. So I knew that college was the right path for me.”

Without the scholarship, Madrid says he “would constantly have to worry about having enough money to cover the tuition.” He says he is one of two children in a family who “never had the financial capability to pay for college [for one child] let alone two tuition bills.” Madrid adds that the scholarship “has helped alleviate the financial burden that comes along with college and given [him] the capability to give back to those who invested in [his] college education.”

Both students said they were able to get through the scholarship application process with ease. “It was a very straight-forward application,” Chavez says. “I went to the website, and it was very simple. Things flowed easily.”

Madrid also says he made it through the scholarship application process with little to no hassle. “It was one of the easiest scholarship applications I have done,” he says. “I simply went to phef.net, printed off the application, received my letters of recommendation, and, boom, I was done.”

But Madrid, who was part of the 2016 pilot program for the scholarship, says it could have been better publicized then. “I learned from my Colorado GEAR UP adviser at the last second seeing that this whole scholarship was relatively new,” he says, adding that he thinks “the whole idea of marijuana funding college education” resulted in high school seniors shying away from the scholarship and kept them from encouraging other seniors to apply for it.

Pilot program grows

The Pueblo Hispanic Education Foundation, or PHEF, is the group the commissioners contracted to manage the Pueblo County Scholarship fund. PHEF receives 10 percent of the total scholarship fund’s annual take for its troubles. Beverly Duran, PHEF’s executive director, says the 2016 pilot program, which consisted of 25 scholarship recipients, has been successful. Of the 25, 23 recipients are still attending college on the scholarship. The other two each have graduated college with associate degrees. Last year, however, was the first time cannabis excise tax dollars were used to fund the scholarship, as stated in the 2015 ballot measure creating the scholarship.

And last year, Duran says 210 students received scholarships. She adds that she tries to keep each scholarship’s value at $2,000 a year per recipient because it can help cover the cost of living on campus (especially for students who don’t have cars), has allowed students to work part-time instead of full-time, or can determine whether a student goes to college at all. (Yet make no mistake, a $2,000 annual scholarship amounts to little more than a drop in the bucket when it comes to overall college expenses. For example, CSU-Pueblo reveals that the cost of living on campus alone is $5,830 per academic year and the money covers roughly three credit hours at the university.)

Last year’s scholarships totaled $420,000, a far cry from the pilot program’s $50,000. And, if all goes as planned, this year’s scholarship allotment of $750,000, (the bulk of which – as stated before – comes from the sale or transfer of unprocessed marijuana), just might fund scholarships for up to 375 students.

As far as publicizing the scholarship, a lot has changed since the pilot program. Commissioner Pace says high school guidance counselors are well-informed of the scholarship’s existence. And Duran says her organization is getting the word out about the scholarships through advertising, articles in print (like this one), and stories airing on area television stations’ news broadcasts. She says even large banners telling of the scholarship’s availability are strung up in high school hallways. Yet alas, Duran laments, despite all the effort, some students and parents still say they weren’t aware of the scholarship.

A COSI alliance

The Pueblo County Scholarship receives state funding from the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative, or COSI, in addition to the cannabis excise tax revenue. Although it is said COSI offers “matching funds” to those raised through the marijuana tax, the funds don’t match at all.

So far, PHEF has received two COSI awards – one for $226,597 in 2016 and another for $210,685 last year – each are spread over four years in varying amounts, according to COSI’s director Shelley Banker. She adds that those funds are encumbered. “We do not anticipate funding decisions from the Legislature to have an impact on those current commitments,” Banker says. “Similarly, PHEF and Pueblo County have another opportunity to apply [this year] for $214,291 from our program.” PHEF’s Duran says she plans to start the paperwork on the county’s request for the 2018 COSI allotment, which will be awarded in the summer, soon.

Statewide, COSI offers $7.5 million annually to communities “based on an assessment of total dollars in our COSI fund, projected future spending, and community participation,” Banker says. She adds that “COSI is seeking an additional $4 million in state funding this legislative session so that we can increase the number of program and scholarship grants and serve even more students through our grants in future years.” The COSI request is part of the Long Bill, or the state’s budget bill. General Assembly discussions on the Long Bill begin to pick up around the middle of this month.

However, any additional statewide COSI allotment, should the General Assembly approve it as part of the Long Bill, would not be available until 2019. “The $4 million appropriation would contribute significantly to the sustainability of our program long term,” Banker says, “and would help maintain current levels of … scholarship aid, like that accessed in Pueblo.”

Banker espouses the value COSI brings to the Pueblo community. “It’s partnerships like that with Pueblo County and Pueblo Hispanic Education Foundation that contribute to the success of COSI statewide, and allow us together to help more Colorado students pursue and complete postsecondary education,” she says. “The particular source [a marijuana tax] of the match committed by the Pueblo County commissioners is one example of how communities are creatively utilizing our matching grant opportunity to leverage state funding and make dollars go further.”

A cannabis conundrum

It may be a challenge for some to philosophically justify tacitly advocating the recreational use of cannabis, but through a vote of the people of Pueblo County, recreational marijuana now fits into the same category as recreational alcohol and tobacco. Yet tax money from each of those substances has been going toward improving communities for decades in terms of sales taxes and other means. And that’s what the Pueblo County Scholarship program does in its own small way – improve the community. COSI’s Banker has this to say about Pueblo cannabis-funded scholarship: “Not only has the community embraced this opportunity, but they are also showing success with the money. Our latest outcome report notes that Pueblo County students receiving COSI funds through the Pueblo Hispanic Education Foundation had a 95 percent retention rate.”

She adds, “National best practices and our own research at the Colorado Department of Higher Education indicate that student support services [like Pueblo’s use of COSI funds combined with the wholesale marijuana excise tax] are key to a student’s ability to persist and make it to the finish line.”

And that “finish line” is one shared by a community eager to both groom more well-educated citizens and attract industries offering better-paying jobs.

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Push to legalize marijuana upends governor’s race in New Mexico

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jeff Apodaca on Thursday called for the expansion of New Mexico’s medical marijuana program and for legalization of recreational use, saying the poverty-stricken state is missing out on millions of dollars in tax revenues and jobs that could be spurred by the industry.

Apodaca released his plan solidifying his position as a supporter of legalization as the race for governor heats up.

Apodaca pointed to New Mexico’s history as the first state to allow for research and experimentation with marijuana as a therapeutic drug. It was his father, then-Gov. Jerry Apodaca, who signed that legislation in 1978.

The research program stalled and it wasn’t until 2008 that New Mexico rolled out its medical cannabis program.

“Why are we shooting for being the last to legalize cannabis for adult use?” Apodaca said.

The push for legalization comes as New Mexico’s medical marijuana program has grown exponentially in just the last two years. Producers licensed under the program reported record sales of more than $86 million in 2017 and the number of patients enrolled now tops 50,000.

“We know the medical benefits of it. And we also know the opportunities of legalization for adult use,” Apodaca said, suggesting expansion of the long-standing medical marijuana program along with legalization could result in an estimated $200 million of additional tax revenues for the state.

The state’s largest producer, Ultra Health, announced that it has acquired farmland in southern New Mexico and has plans for what the industry says could be the largest cultivation facility in North America.

The property spans nearly one-third of a square mile (81 hectares) in Otero County. It will include 20 acres (8 hectares) of indoor cultivation, 80 acres (32 hectares) of outdoor cannabis fields and another 100 acres (40 hectares) of outdoor hemp fields.

Ultra Health president and CEO Duke Rodriguez said the company is preparing for a future in which New Mexico stands to benefit from expanded medical use and possibly recreational use.

Apodaca’s plan calls for lifting the current limits on the number of plants producers can grow and reducing costly licensing fees.

Other Democratic candidates have been more cautious.

U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she would work with state lawmakers to ensure there are adequate health, safety and enforcement measures in place. She called for a “thorough analysis” of recreational pot programs in other states as part of that effort.

Lujan Grisham was in charge of the state Health Department when the medical marijuana program began. Aside from the legalization debate, she said supporting producers to create the latest medicines and methods to help patients would help create jobs and expand the industry.

State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, another Democratic candidate, has sponsored unsuccessful legislation to decriminalize possession of small quantities of pot but has said the state is lacking infrastructure and isn’t ready yet to legalize.

Cervantes recently lauded efforts at the local level by the state’s largest city — Albuquerque — to decriminalize possession of small amounts. He said he would do the same as governor and that it would mark a first step.

Republican congressman and gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce expressed reservations about legalization at a forum earlier this month. He said it might create a stumbling block for people trying to climb out of poverty and addiction to other drugs.

“I just don’t see how it fits that we’re going to deal with addiction and yet we’re going to tell people, ‘This one is OK.’ I’ve watched it for a lifetime. I just am very nervous with recreational marijuana,” he said.

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‘For fun’ killing reveals vulnerability for homeless Native Americans in New Mexico

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The morning a homeless man was shot and killed in Albuquerque, police say surveillance videos showed him running down a street before sunrise, and then gunfire flash in the dark.

Native Americans make up only 4 percent of the population, but account for 44 percent of people living on the streets, raising the likelihood they will be victimized when there is an attack on the homeless.

Ronnie Ross, a 50-year-old from the Navajo Nation town of Shiprock, had been shot a dozen times, including once in the forehead and temple, and four times in the back, according to a criminal complaint. Police say the two teenage suspects charged with murder this week apparently shot him “for fun” as they came and went from a hotel party nearby.

The homicide marked the latest in a series of brazen killings and assaults of homeless Native Americans in the city. In Albuquerque, Native Americans make up only 4 percent of the population, but account for 44 percent of people living on the streets, raising the likelihood they will be victimized when there is an attack on the homeless.

A 2014 survey showed 75 percent of homeless Native Americans in Albuquerque had been physically assaulted.

“Just being harassed is part of everyday life, but it’s not as much harassment as it is overgrown bullying,” said Gordon Yawakia, who works at the Albuquerque Indian Center and was once homeless himself. “What do you do when people are against you and then the authorities are against you and you’ve got nobody, you know?”

In 2014, Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson, both Navajo, were beaten to death as they slept in a vacant lot. While authorities did not say the men were targeted because they were Native American, activists disagreed and the deaths spurred the creation of a city task force to address Native American homelessness that now-former Mayor Richard Berry said could set the stage for changes for the population across the Southwest.

Now, Ross’ death is underscoring how difficult it may be to protect and find solutions for the city’s Native American homeless population.

“When I hear a story like this it adds fuel to the fire,” said Dawn Begay, who is the city’s tribal liaison, and works with the homeless through a local nonprofit. “Where we’re headed is a good direction but it has to happen faster.”

Ross’ killing in March came three months after the body of Audra Willis was found decapitated in an area not far from the Sandia Mountains that line the city’s east side. The 39-year-old had come from To’hajiilee, a tiny Navajo community west of Albuquerque, and records show she had multiple addresses during her time in the city, including at the Albuquerque Indian Center.

Willis’ especially grisly death sent shockwaves through Albuquerque, just as the beatings of Thompson and Gorman had three years earlier.

The two men had been killed on a July 2014 night when authorities say three boys — ages 15, 16 and 18_returned home from a night of drinking and decided to attack them as they slept on a mattress. The men were beaten with a wooden table leg, cinder blocks, and other objects, police said. One young suspect later told authorities that the teens had beaten dozens of homeless people, though apparently none others fatally.

In Ross’ death, the complaint filed against the 15- and 17-year-old suspects does not identify a motive, but says the two teenagers bragged to friends about the shooting.

According to police, friends and acquaintances of the boys — whom The Associated Press is not naming because of their ages — said the suspects had been showing off a gun at the party, and had said to others that they had shot a man. At one point, the younger boy also said to a close friend at the party that he shot a “hobo” in the back.

The boys made one more stop at the scene to find Ross still alive, prompting the older boy to shoot him multiple times, according to the complaint.

“It’s completely disturbing,” said Officer Simon Drobik, an Albuquerque police spokesman, said Tuesday. “They just shot this guy for fun.”

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The Last Castro; Raul retires as Cuban president

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Raul Castro turned over Cuba’s presidency Thursday to a 57-year-old successor he said would hold power until 2031, a plan that would place the state the Castro brothers founded and ruled for 60 years in the hands of a Communist Party official little known to most on the island.

Castro’s 90-minute valedictory speech offered his first clear vision for the nation’s future power structure under new President Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel Bermudez. Castro said he foresees the white-haired electronics engineer serving two five-year terms as leader of the Cuban government, and taking the helm of the Communist Party, the country’s ultimate authority, when Castro leaves the powerful position in 2021.

“From that point on, I will be just another soldier defending this revolution,” Castro said. The 86-year-old general broke frequently from his prepared remarks to joke and banter with officials on the dais in the National Assembly, saying he looked forward to having more time to travel the country.

In his own half-hour speech to the nation, Diaz-Canel pledged to preserve Cuba’s communist system while gradually reforming the economy and making the government more responsive to the people.

“There’s no space here for a transition that ignores or destroys the legacy of so many years of struggle,” Diaz-Canel said. “For us, it’s totally clear that only the Communist Party of Cuba, the guiding force of society and the state, guarantees the unity of the nation of Cuba.”

Diaz-Canel said he would work to implement a long-term plan laid out by the National Assembly and communist party that would continue allowing the limited growth of private enterprises like restaurants and taxis, while leaving the economy’s most important sectors such as energy, mining, telecommunications, medical services and rum- and cigar-production in the hands of the state.

“The people have given this assembly the mandate to provide continuity to the Cuban Revolution during a crucial, historic moment that will be defined by all that we achieve in the advance of the modernization of our social and economic model,” Diaz-Canel said.

Cubans said they expected their new president to deliver improvements to the island’s economy, which remains stagnant and dominated by inefficient, unproductive state-run enterprises that are unable to provide salaries high enough to cover basic needs. The average monthly pay for state workers is roughly $30 a month, forcing many to steal from their workplaces and depend on remittances from relatives abroad.

“I hope that Diaz-Canel brings prosperity,” said Richard Perez, a souvenir salesman in Old Havana. “I want to see changes, above all economic changes allowing people to have their own businesses, without the state in charge of so many things.”

But in Miami, Cuban-Americans said they didn’t expect much from Diaz-Canel.

“It’s a cosmetic change,” said Wilfredo Allen, a 66-year-old lawyer who left Cuba two years after the Castros’ 1959 revolution. “The reality is that Raul Castro is still controlling the Communist Party. We are very far from having a democratic Cuba.”

After formally taking over from his older brother Fidel in 2008, Raul Castro launched a series of reforms that led to a rapid expansion of Cuba’s private sector and burgeoning use of cellphones and the internet. Cuba today has a vibrant real estate market and one of the world’s fastest-growing airports. Tourism numbers have more than doubled since Castro and President Barack Obama re-established diplomatic relations in 2015, making Cuba a destination for nearly 5 million visitors a year, despite a plunge in relations under the Trump administration.

Castro’s moves to open the economy even further have largely been frozen or reversed as soon as they began to generate conspicuous displays of wealth by the new entrepreneurial class in a country officially dedicated to equality among its citizens. Foreign investment remains anemic and the island’s infrastructure is falling deeper into disrepair. The election of President Donald Trump dashed dreams of detente with the U.S., and after two decades of getting Venezuelan subsidies totaling more than $6 billion a year, Cuba’s patron has collapsed economically, with no replacement in the wings.

Castro’s inability or unwillingness to fix Cuba’s structural problems with deep and wide-ranging reforms has many wondering how a successor without Castro’s founding-father credentials will manage the country over the next five or 10 years.

“I want the country to advance,” said Susel Calzado, a 61-year-old economics professor. “We already have a plan laid out.”

Most Cubans have known their new president as an uncharismatic figure who until recently maintained a public profile so low it was virtually nonexistent. Castro’s declaration Thursday that he saw Diaz-Canel in power for more than a decade was likely to resolve much of the uncertainty about the power the new president would wield inside the Cuban system.

“The same thing we’re doing with him, he’ll have to do with his successor,” Castro said. “When his 10 years of service as president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers are over, he’ll have three years as first secretary in order to facilitate the transition. This will help us avoid mistakes by his successor, until (Diaz-Canel) retires to take care of the grandchildren he will have then, if he doesn’t have them already, or his great-grandchildren.”

Cuban state media said Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Diaz-Canel and thanked Castro for the many years of cooperation between the two countries, while Chinese President Xi Jinping also reaffirmed his country’s friendship with Cuba and expressed interest in deeper ties.

At the U.S. State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert expressed disappointment at the handover, saying Cuban citizens “had no real power to affect the outcome” of what she called the “undemocratic transition” that brought Diaz-Canal to the presidency.

Vice President Mike Pence tweeted at Castro that the U.S. won’t rest until Cuba “has free & fair elections, political prisoners are released & the people of Cuba are finally free!”

Diaz-Canel said his government would be willing to talk with the United States but rejected all demands for changes in the Cuban system.

With Castro watching from the audience, Diaz-Canel made clear that for the moment he would defer to the man who founded the Cuban communist system along with his brother Fidel. He said he would retain Castro’s cabinet through at least July, when the National Assembly meets again.

“I confirm to this assembly that Raul Castro, as first secretary of the Communist Party, will lead the decisions about the future of the country,” Diaz-Canel said. “Cuba needs him, providing ideas and proposals for the revolutionary cause, orienting and alerting us about any error or deficiency, teaching us, and always ready to confront imperialism.”

Diaz-Canel first gained prominence in central Villa Clara province as the top Communist Party official, a post equivalent to governor. People there describe him as a hard-working, modest-living technocrat dedicated to improving public services. He became higher education minister in 2009 before moving into the vice presidency.

In a video of a Communist Party meeting that inexplicably leaked to the public last year, Diaz-Canel expressed a series of orthodox positions that included somberly pledging to shutter some independent media and labeling some European embassies as outposts of foreign subversion.

But he has also defended academics and bloggers who became targets of hard-liners, leading some to describe him a potential advocate for greater openness in a system intolerant of virtually any criticism or dissent. International observers and Cubans alike will be scrutinizing every move he makes in coming days and weeks.

As in Cuba’s legislative elections, all of the leaders selected Wednesday were picked by a government-appointed commission. Ballots offered only the option of approval or disapproval and candidates generally receive more than 95 percent of the votes in their favor. Diaz-Canel was approved by 604 votes in the 605-member assembly. It was unclear if he had abstained or someone else had declined to endorse him.

The assembly also approved another six vice presidents of the Council of State, Cuba’s highest government body. Only one, 85-year-old Ramiro Valdes, was among the revolutionaries who fought with the Castros in the late 1950s in the eastern Sierra Maestra mountains.

___

Associated Press writer Ben Fox contributed to this report.

 

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