Growth continues for Pueblo’s cannabis industry but criticism remains unchanged
In one of the most monumental moments in history: when Colorado became one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012. Commercial sales of cannabis rolled out January 1, 2014, and the Centennial State has never been the same.
For almost five years, Colorado has been at the forefront of the marijuana movement. The Colorado Department of Revenue reports that Colorado pot shops pulled in over $1.5 billion in medical and recreational marijuana sales in 2017, yet there are only 25 out of 64 counties that currently permit some kind of marijuana business.
Pueblo is one of these counties and is leading the way in Colorado’s rapidly expanding legal pot industry. As the first county to allow outdoor and greenhouse commercial cannabis grows, many contend that it’s the perfect place to grow marijuana, likening it to the Napa Valley of weed. Los Sueños Farms is the largest of almost 200 outdoor cannabis farms in the county with a projected 20 tons expected in 2018.
Legal cannabis in Pueblo has created jobs. Saved a struggling economy. Brought in millions of dollars in revenue.
In a recent pilot study, economists at Colorado State University – Pueblo Institute of Cannabis Research found some $35 million was generated in Pueblo from legal cannabis sales alone.
Chris Markuson, Pueblo County economic development and geographic information systems director says that the explosive growth of the recreational cannabis industry “literally saved our construction community” during the end of the recession and has accounted for more than half of Pueblo county’s construction revenue for the last three years.
In 2017, 210 Pueblo County High School students received $2000 each in scholarship money that came from marijuana taxes. In early 2018, there was nearly $750,000 in funding available for these scholarships, with Pueblo County officials estimating to award some 600 in the 2019-2020 academic year.
As legal as pot may be, not everyone is exactly on board with recreational weed in Pueblo. Remember, marijuana was illegal for a really, really long time, and there are still plenty of people that think it should stay that way.
First, there’s the whole “gateway drug” theory. Pueblo addiction psychiatrist Libby Stuyt holds strongly to the idea that marijuana is indeed a gateway drug that can ultimately lead to harder drugs.
She says that over the past few years that cannabis has been legal, there’s been a significant increase in patients whose main addiction is marijuana – although many also admit to using alcohol, cocaine, meth, or opiates.
A 2018 analysis report published by LiveStories who specialize in civic data analysis, looked at drug use trends following marijuana legalization in Alaska, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado. While it found that while marijuana use did increase following legalization in these states, there was little evidence that proved it to be a “gateway drug.”
According to Adnan Mahmud, founder of LiveStories, “We haven’t found any strong correlation that suggests increased marijuana use leads to increases in other substance abuse.”
He noted that heroin and opioid deaths in Colorado, while obviously a great concern, are actually slightly lower than the national average. Cocaine use in Colorado is slightly higher than the national average and has risen a bit in the last year, but Muhmad says that cocaine use in Colorado prior to marijuana legalization was somewhat higher than it is today.
Then there’s Pueblo’s homeless population. Anne Stattelman, director of non-profit organization Posada which offers housing assistance to Pueblo’s homeless population, believes legal weed is to blame for rise in Pueblo’s homeless population. She estimates that around one-third of those who end up homeless in Pueblo came to the city because of marijuana.
“You remember the Gold Rush? We call it the Pot Rush. Not only do people think they’ll be able to smoke marijuana,” Stattelman said, “but people think they can get jobs working in marijuana fields.”
Is legal pot really to blame for the rise of homelessness in Pueblo and other cities across Colorado? Homelessness is everywhere and whether or not the increase in cities like Pueblo, Colorado Springs, and Denver is because of legal marijuana, it’s undoubtedly something that’s widely debated.
Pilot research that looked into the impact of legal cannabis in Pueblo County found evidence to debunk the belief that weed is to blame for a rising homeless population. Research was conducted by economists with Colorado State University’s Institute of Cannabis Research.
CSU-Pueblo Sociologist Timothy McGettigan contends that the homeless problem is more complicated than legal pot. “The idea that people have been coming to Colorado in a state of droves, spending their last dime on cannabis and then lining up at soup kitchen queues and at social service agencies is not really accurate,” McGettigan said. “The picture is much different than that.”
According to the report: “Poverty rates remain high in Pueblo, but poverty rates have neither increased nor decreased as a result of legal cannabis. Pueblo has experienced substantial increases in homelessness. Some attribute increased homelessness to legal cannabis, but we found no clear evidence to unambiguously determine the extent of that claim. Further, cannabis is legal throughout Colorado. It is unclear how to argue to what extent cannabis alone would significantly increase homelessness in Pueblo but decrease homelessness in other counties.”
Pueblo Police Chief Troy Davenport disagrees. He says homeless people regularly tell his officers they’ve come to Colorado for the weed, and Pueblo particularly for its warmer climate. He says the CSU-Pueblo study doesn’t include any of the information he gets from his officers regarding the homeless population throughout the city and that his department observes “directly from talking to people that many people who are homeless came so they could get marijuana legally.”
Then, of course, is marijuana’s black market. A large goal of legalizing marijuana was to eradicate the black market, but many contend that in Pueblo the black market is getting worse. It’s no secret that there have been several large-scale busts in Pueblo county over the past few years.
According to Gayle Perez, public information officer for the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office, in 2016 there were 41 total arrests that happened at 30 different homes in 2016. For a while, there were illegal marijuana busts in Pueblo each week. Sometimes multiple grows are busted each week. And while there are far fewer busts than there were two years ago, it’s no secret the black market in Pueblo is still alive and well.
In late August, 57 plants were discovered in a backyard grow in Pueblo West with an estimate value of over $170,000. In June, 400 plants were confiscated in a Pueblo West bust, worth an estimated $1.2 million. In May, Pueblo County authorities found 120 plants in a raid with suspected ties to Cuba.
Some contend the only way to eradicate the black market is for cannabis to be legalized at the federal level. Much of the black-market marijuana that is grown in places like Pueblo is shipped to other states that still ban recreational weed. Where a pound of cannabis on the black market now goes for an estimated $1500 in Colorado, it can easily be sold for over $3000 in Florida.
“We suspect that a good portion of sizable home grows across the state that are operating under the auspices of providing for patients may be providing cannabis for the black market,” says Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace.
Pueblo authorities hope that new plant count limits that went into effect in January 2018 will help to decrease the number of large-scale illegal grows and begin to get rid of the black market. A person who is found to have more than 12 plants growing in their home could now face felony charges. Six plants over the limit is a misdemeanor. Anyone found with more than 30 plants over the legal limit could face a Class 3 felony.
Pace says that the plan for new plant count limits will help to begin to get rid of black market sales.
Whatever side of the fence you sit on regarding legal pot in Pueblo, it’s safe to say legal weed is here to stay. We do, after all, live in a country where the will of the voters will continue to outweigh the opinions of proponents.
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