Colorado

A tale of two cities: Fort Collins, Springs differ on regulating medical marijuana around schools

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 Feb. 14 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 Feb. 14 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.

Related stories

About this project

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.

Springs’ pro/con

“People drive by the dispensaries just like the 7-Elevens and the Walgreens without even noticing them.”
–Former city councilman

“If an opportunity to reverse the law or close down dispensaries presents itself, we’ll examine it.”
–Focus on the Family

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 Feb. 11. 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.”

Fort Collins’ pro/con

“The dispensaries sprang up like crazy … I believe they even outnumbered our Starbucks.”
–Dispensary ban supporter

“Having medical marijuana centers is a better way to keep kids away from it than having no regulation at all.”
–Dispensary owner

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 closed, Fort Collins is giving 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 Feb. 10 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.”

“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.”
–Fort Collins PD

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 Feb. 14 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 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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.