First Person

Fort Collins, Colorado Springs differ on regulating medical marijuana around schools

By Rebecca Jones and Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

Sometime on Saturday, Steve Ackerman sold his last joint.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
A worker at Fort Collins' Medicinal Gardens dispensary, one of 23 facing a Tuesday deadline for closure. Photo by Joe Mahoney / I-News

His Organic Alternatives, a medical marijuana dispensary in Fort Collins, is one of 23 in this laid-back university town forced to close by Tuesday after residents voted to ban dispensaries.

“I won’t continue in the medical marijuana industry,” said Ackerman, who opened his comfortable saloon-like dispensary two years ago. “But I will continue to support it, and I’ll continue to help fight for what I think is right. Marijuana should not be prohibited.”

Cruise south a little less than 150 miles and you’ll find the opposite scenario, one of Colorado’s medical marijuana capitals in a city known as a conservative stronghold.

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Neon green crosses signifying medical marijuana businesses now light up so many shops in Colorado Springs that they rival the number of churches in a town where evangelical Christians often dominate.

Welcome to the new Tale of Two Cities, a real-life drama playing out as Coloradans wrestle with how to handle the resurgence in popularity of this ancient plant.

Voters narrowly approved the use of marijuana for limited medicinal purposes in 2000. But it wasn’t until 2009, when more than 700 medical marijuana dispensaries began sprouting in neighborhoods across the state, that the issue became kitchen-table conversation.

Since then, more than 80 communities have banned dispensaries, outlawing them from Alamosa to Greeley. School leaders lament a 45 percent spike in drug offenses, an increase sparking a federal crackdown on dispensaries near campuses.

Colorado has become a national focal point in the debate over efforts to legalize medical marijuana, as over a dozen states weigh legislation to approve its use and join the 16 states where those laws are already on the books.

Fort Collins and Colorado Springs — the college town that banned dispensaries and the conservative city that didn’t — illustrate how different communities grapple with the results.

Later this month, Fort Collins will be the focus of a new TV series, “American Weed,” shot by a National Geographic crew that spent months filming the battle over the ban.

“They viewed Colorado in general and Fort Collins in particular as a real litmus test for the rest of the country as it relates to medical marijuana,” said Fort Collins resident Scoot Crandall, who championed the ban. “They wanted to show a complete picture of what happens in a community when medical marijuana is being debated.”

In the Springs, focus on “liberties and choices”

In Colorado Springs, libertarians squared off against religious conservatives in drafting medical marijuana regulations in 2010.

Much to the dismay of medical marijuana opponents, the libertarians won.

Click on graphic to enlarge.

“Colorado Springs residents still want government out of their hair. They believe in individual liberties and choices, everything from gun rights to medical marijuana,” said Sean Paige, a former city councilman who oversaw regulations that allow dispensaries as close as 400 feet from schools, and day care and drug rehab centers.

State law suggests a 1,000-foot buffer around schools but allows local authorities to deviate.

Superintendents of three school districts – Colorado Springs, Cheyenne Mountain and Academy – urged adoption of the bigger buffer zone but were unsuccessful.

“Yes, there was a lot of fear and a lot of parental anxiety, but the sky hasn’t fallen,” Paige said. “It hasn’t led to Sodom and Gomorrah in Colorado Springs. It hasn’t been the destruction of our city and our culture. People drive by the dispensaries just like the 7-Elevens and the Walgreens without even noticing them.”

Not everyone is oblivious.

Religious conservatives say they are watching the marijuana experiment play out and waiting for an opportunity to intervene.

Focus on the Family, the giant among Colorado Springs’ evangelical groups, opposed the legalization of medical marijuana in 2000 and plans to fight any ballot measure this year to allow recreational use of the drug.

For now, Focus leaders have had little choice but to tolerate the dispensaries in their backyard.

“Like many, we are unhappy with the current marijuana dispensary situation in Colorado Springs. However, we are not aware that there are any current options to ‘fight’ these dispensaries as they are here legally and to date, efforts to limit them have been unsuccessful,” said Carrie Gordon Earll of CitizenLink, Focus’ advocacy arm.

“If an opportunity to reverse the law or close down dispensaries presents itself, we’ll examine it for future involvement.”

State law allows local governments or local voters to regulate or ban marijuana-related business. A listing from the Colorado Municipal League shows, as of November, 37 of 85 community bans have been approved by voters while the other 48 were enacted by local governments such as city councils.

A proposal to ban dispensaries in Colorado Springs has never made it to the city ballot. In Fort Collins, a citizens’ initiative split the city for much of 2011.

Campaign in “Fort Fun” emphasizes kids

Dubbed “Fort Fun” by college kids and known for its forestry students and earth-friendly microbreweries, Fort Collins came late to the idea of a ban.

Steve Ackerman, owner of Fort Collins' Organic Alternatives dispensary, closed Saturday. Photo by Joe Mahoney / I-News

Activists say they watched one nearby community after another prohibit dispensaries. The home of Colorado State University seemed destined to become the region’s marijuana mecca.

“The dispensaries sprang up like crazy,” said Crandall, who is executive director of Team Fort Collins, a substance abuse prevention coalition. “At one point, they outnumbered our pharmacies. I believe they even outnumbered our Starbucks.”

The city council initially passed restrictions barring dispensaries from locating within 1,000 feet of schools. But like many communities, they planned to allow those who were already there to stay. Nearly all of the 23 existing dispensaries violated the new regulations.

“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said City Councilman Wade Troxell, who helped lead the campaign for the ban. “We allowed 21 medical marijuana dispensaries to be adjacent to our neighborhoods, next to our schools, surrounding the CSU campus, up and down our main avenue.”

Troxell said he was walking downtown to get a cup of coffee one morning when he stepped on a dispensary vial.

Meanwhile, Poudre Valley schools posted increasing numbers of drug violations. During 2007-08, schools reported 74 drug violations to the state; during 2010-11, that number was 200.

Ultimately, the rallying cry behind Initiative 300 became “Save our kids!”

But while 52 percent of Fort Collins residents agreed to the ban, those who pushed it say it’s uncertain whether they’ll see a decline in reported drug use at schools.

“We feel like the damage has been done to our kids,” said Crandall. “The perception of harm is low. Even though we’ve been able to secure the passage of this ballot initiative, we have a lot of educating to do with our kids.”

Ackerman, who’s been forced to shut down his dispensary on Fort Collins’ Mountain Avenue, happens to share concerns about marijuana use – or any drug use – among teens.

He just doesn’t agree that prohibition is the answer.

“Anything we can do to keep kids away from all substances – including alcohol and prescription drugs – is a good thing,” said the father of two. “But I think having medical marijuana centers is a better way to keep kids away from it than having no regulation at all.”

Police cite concerns about “seepage in the system”

With the dispensaries closing, Fort Collins will give up an estimated $250,000 a year in tax revenue. Troxell says the city will never miss the money.

Sarah Graham, manager of Medicinal Gardens dispensary in Fort Collins, packed Friday in preparation for a move to a new Denver location. Photo by Joe Mahoney / I-News

“Given the trade-off of social ills they bring, we’re coming out far ahead,” he said. “It doesn’t take more than a few families not being destroyed to recover the cost of that sales tax.”

Critics of the Fort Collins ban say marijuana has always been easy to get and, if anything, dispensaries undermine the black market.

There’s nothing to suggest dispensaries themselves are selling directly to minors – or to anyone without a medical marijuana card.

But police say more marijuana is making its way into the community.

“There’s a lot of seepage in the system. There’s just a lot of pot being grown, and it’s very difficult to track where it’s all going,” said Capt. Jerry Schiager, former commander of the narcotics unit of the Fort Collins Police Department. “The whole medical marijuana system has increased access to marijuana.”

Patrons of dispensaries are limited to purchasing no more than 2 ounces of marijuana at a time from a single outlet, because state law says that’s the maximum amount a medical marijuana patient should have at any one time.

But there is no system of tracking purchases from one dispensary to the next, and medical marijuana patients can buy products from any dispensary at any time.

“It’s possible, for an individual who wanted to, to obtain 2 ounces at 23 dispensaries in a single day,” said Bob Powell, a retired Fort Collins businessman who worked on Initiative 300. “They can get a lot of marijuana that way, which can get into the hands of our kids.”

But is that happening? Law enforcement officials have a difficult time connecting the dots.

Unlike many other drugs – or other prescription medications – marijuana is an agricultural product, not something cooked up in a laboratory with definitive markers. It’s difficult to determine where a given ounce of marijuana came from or to track where it’s going.

Springs school officials confiscate dispensary vials

In Colorado Springs, school officials say at least some medical marijuana is flowing into the hands of teens.

By the numbers

  • Number of churches200 churches within Colorado Springs city limits, based on property tax exemption records and excluding related church property such as parking lots and schools.
  • Number of medical marijuana businesses235 licenses have been issued by the Colorado Springs city clerk for dispensaries, infused edible manufacturers and grow centers, for use at 176 unique locations.

City revenues

  • $110,765 – amount paid in 2009 by medical marijuana businesses via sales and use taxes
  • $549,414 – amount paid in 2010
  • $770,979 – amount paid in 2011

Schools in District 11, the core-city district, have posted some of the highest increases statewide in drug violations. Palmer High School reported two drug incidents in 2007-08, one in 2008-09, 75 in 2009-10 and 45 in 2010-11.

Greg Ecks, director of the district’s Office of Student Discipline Services, sees every student found with drugs. He said almost all have been caught with marijuana.

The newest trend he’s noticing is edibles like marijuana-infused gums. He also sees plenty of little brown dispensary jars.

“It has a dispensary label on it. That would lead us to the conclusion that it’s coming from dispensaries,” Ecks said. “It’s passing hands. The students say they don’t know where it came from. But the jars are quite common.

“It’s serious and it’s a growing problem. Even before it was legally allowed for medicinal purposes, it was growing in popularity,” he added. “Now it’s filtering down into the middle schools.”

At Palmer, located in downtown Colorado Springs, students flood into nearby Acacia Park during lunch and other breaks. It’s a small, gritty park where homeless people hang out and kids say it’s easy to score street weed.

But their preferred method is to buy wholesale, not from dealers in the park.

“The favored way for kids to get it pretty much is to go through a grower because that way you can keep up with the grower’s plants,” said a 17-year-old Palmer High School junior.

“You’d be able to see the quality of it, how it’s made and be able to trust that person to get you the highest quality you can get.”

Dan May, the Springs' DA who wants dispensaries away from schools, is targeted by protestors after he charged a cancer patient with illegal possession of marijuana. Photo by Joe Mahoney / I-News

Fourth Judicial District Attorney Dan May remains convinced medical marijuana businesses near schools are leading to increased use among young people.

He said that medical marijuana is the No. 1 drug that juveniles in his crime diversion program, which covers El Paso and Teller counties, report using.

In 2010, Colorado Springs was so broke that national media outlets such as ABC and CNN covered city leaders selling police helicopters online and urging residents to mow municipal parks, among other measures.

May believes city officials have failed to protect young people while scooping up more than $770,000 in revenues during 2011 from medical marijuana businesses.

“They built their establishments in residential areas, next to schools. They’re next to churches. They’re next door to each other,” he said. “Our city council failed this community.”

Contact Katie Kerwin McCrimmon at [email protected] and Rebecca Jones at [email protected].

Impact of medical marijuana dispensary bans

Do medical marijuana dispensary bans result in declining drug violations in Colorado public schools?

It may be too early for definitive evidence but the answer for two communities, at least, seems to be no.

Virtually all of the 85 communities and local government councils enacting dispensary bans have done so in 2010 or later, and those votes have typically included closure dates coming months afterward.

For example, voters in Fort Collins enacted a dispensary ban in November 2011 and set Tuesday as the deadline for closing up shop.

Aurora voters passed a ban in November 2010 and, since then, the number of students caught selling marijuana has gone down slightly. But the number found possessing marijuana has gone up.

During the 2009-10 school year, before the ban, 50 students were caught selling and 312 were found in possession. The following year, in 2010-11, 39 students were caught selling and 367 possessing.

“We do not believe that our data is related to the dispensary ban,” said Aurora Public Schools spokeswoman Paula Hans. “Instead, we believe it is because we have increased the number of APS security officers who are in our schools monitoring these types of behaviors.”

Perhaps more telling over time will be the experience in Grand Junction, where voters in April 2011 banned dispensaries.

An Aurora ban may not have as much impact because nearby communities, such as Denver, continue to allow them. But the Grand Junction vote means there’s only one legal dispensary left today in all of Mesa County – and that’s in Palisade, 12 miles away.

Mesa County schools have seen a steady increase in drug violations over the past four years, from 100 in 2007-08 to 155 in 2010-11. But district officials aren’t sure the brief influx of dispensaries accounts for that.

Nor do they think the closure of the dispensaries will turn things around.

“Frankly, when you look historically at any kind of discipline record, it tends to be an up-and-down wave,” said district spokesman Jeff Kirtland. “There are years when there are high numbers of incidents, and years when there are low numbers. We continue to see that trend, up and down, consistently.”

He thinks other factors – population growth and the boom-and-bust economy in Grand Junction – could be just as important as the presence of medical marijuana dispensaries in shaping those numbers.

— Rebecca Jones, Education News Colorado

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.