Colorado’s booming medical marijuana businesses have been a lifesaver in a sea of red ink for state and local governments struggling to find new sources of revenues amid an historic recession.
In Colorado Springs, sales tax revenue from medical marijuana has risen to about $50,000 a month, allowing the city to mow grass medians and consider restoring some Saturday bus service.
The irony for the medical marijuana growers and dispensaries is that the additional revenues being collected from them will also fund a new Colorado Springs Police Department unit whose full-time job will be to keep watch over the industry.
“We have a whole new industry … that we have to make sure it’s done safely and it’s not having an impact on quality of life in the community, as well as other crimes,” said Deputy Police Chief Pete Carey. “We have to make sure that as it starts, we pay attention to it.”
After years of budget cuts, the Police Department’s rebuilding efforts appear to be starting with medical marijuana money.
Three detectives and a code enforcement officer would be assigned to the team, which would be created in 2011 under the proposed budget awaiting City Council approval. The team would be part of the Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence task force and would have duties similar to officers who now enforce city liquor laws and zoning regulations, said VNI chief Lt. John Godsey.
The entire expense, $331,000, would come from fees paid by medical marijuana businesses.
In the two years since the U.S. Justice Department announced a hands-off policy toward lawful marijuana businesses in states in which voters have approved its use for various medical conditions, Colorado Springs police have been hard-pressed to keep up with the changes.
Despite break-ins and 4th Judicial District Attorney Dan May’s claim that medical marijuana dispensaries are magnets for crime, Police Department crime statistics have shown little or no increase in illegal activities associated with the burgeoning industry.
But medical marijuana has kept officers running on calls that take away from time that could be spent investigating narcotics dealers.
VNI has been has been deluged with calls about medical marijuana, Godsey said, requiring five to eight officers a day going out to check on reports of illegal growing operations or buildings smelling of marijuana.
What the pot cops would be doing is unclear because the state and city are still coming up with the rules they will be enforcing. Some of it will involve a mix of local and state laws ensuring marijuana dispensaries are properly secured and growers don’t have more plants than allowed under the constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2000.
The detectives on the team will also be making arrests if they find illegal growing operations or illegal drug deals, Godsey said, while the code enforcement officer would ensure building codes are being followed and that growers and dispensaries are the required distance from schools or churches.
“If five years from now we only have 50 dispensaries, and they’ve been very compliant and haven’t had any issues … then it would be maybe a matter of a reassessment of resources,” Godsey said. “We know how busy we are relative to the amount of complaints and work coming in.”
The plan to create a new team devoted to medical marijuana enforcement strikes Tanya Garduno, president of Colorado Springs Medical Cannabis Council, as an overreaction.
Garduno said the team wouldn’t be needed after July 1, when state auditors begin regularly visiting businesses while cameras monitor each dispensary, keeping track of everything going on in the businesses.
“The state has accounted for (regulation), and we paid $9 million for that,” said Garduno, referring to the $8.5 million the state has received in application fees from marijuana centers.
Not everyone in the medical marijuana field is as wary of the scrutiny from law enforcement. Triton Gulczynski, who owns Crossroads Medical Marijuana Center, was glad to hear more detectives would be overseeing the business. With regulation, he said, comes validation for the industry.
“We want to be regulated,” said Gulczynski. “We’re all about being on the books.”
While the Police Department views the creation of the pot cops team as recognition that a new industry requires new priorities, it could be met with a backlash from critics who’ve blasted police for essentially giving up investigating thefts, burglaries and stolen vehicles as budget cuts left officers running from one call to the next.
Over the past few years, the number of detectives investigating property crimes has shrunk from 36 to 12, said police spokesman Sgt. Darrin Abbink. The department also eliminated one of three deputy chief positions, its two-officer fugitives unit, relying instead on SWAT officers to pick up suspects, and next year plans to reduce its airport detail by two officers.
By the end of this year, the Police Department expects to have 40 unfilled vacancies.
Carey expects that to be reversed beginning next year, when the department hopes to hold its first training academy in years.
“It’s getting us back in the right direction,” Carey said. “I believe we’re entering a recovery phase.”
October 23, 2010