Hotchkiss voters will have the opportunity to decide whether to allow cannabis and cannabis-related businesses after the town council vote to put the issue on the April 5 ballot. Trustee James Roberts did not cast a vote.
Resident Mary Hockenbery submitted the petition calling for the election at the Jan. 14 council meeting. If passed, the initiative would allow limited retail, recreational/medical marijuana stores and manufacturing of marijuana products and testing of marijuana and marijuana-infused products, limited to commercial zoning; and commercial growing, limited to industrial and light industrial zoning within the town limits. Voters will also be asked to decide on the taxing of products.
The issue before council, said Mayor Wendell Koontz prior to discussion, isn't whether trustees are for or against the proposal, but whether or not to allow the issue to be placed on the ballot.
Citizens will vote on two separate questions -- one on sales, testing and manufacturing, and another on how to tax sales and services. If approved by voters, the initiative would go into effect in January 2017.
Validation of the petition's 32 signatures will be required before the town moves forward.
"Do not put it on the ballot," said Johnny Marta, who has submitted a petition to run for council. Marta said passage will mean more work for the marshal's department and "bring in trouble. I don't see where it will benefit the town at all."
"I think the citizens of Hotchkiss have already spoken that they don't want marijuana sales or anything else in our town," said Billie Marta. "I hope that the trustees will consider that when they're voting tonight."
Trustee Tom Wills noted that a question of in-town sales and manufacturing has not yet come before voters. While she didn't have exact numbers, town clerk Marlene Searle said both the 2000 state medical and 2013 recreational ballot issues failed within the town.
The town also adopted a resolution in 2013 prohibiting the cultivation, product manufacturing, testing, retail sales within town limits.
If council denied the petition request, Hockenbery said she would fulfill the statutory obligations for holding a special election in October. Special elections can be costly, said Searle. On the April election, "We're spending $990; if we put it on later, we could spend up to $5,000." In her 33 years with the town there has never been a special election, said Searle. "So to say the least, it'd be a real learning curve..."
The town can also anticipate $2,775 to $5,500 in up-front legal fees for a special election, and additional legal fees if the question passes. If placed on the April ballot, those legal fees will be required only if it passes, said Searle.
Town attorney Bo Nerlin recommended putting the question to voters in April. He said the tax question can be placed on the April ballot under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, but not on a special election, which could cause complications.
An April election would also give the town more time to consider how to administer the new law if it passes. While the state and communities struggled with regulations after recreational use was made legal in January, 2013, "There is some maturity now in the regulations developed state-wide," including in small communities, said mayor Wendell Koontz.
Hotchkiss high school principal Paul Rodriguez and K-8 School principal Carrie Yantzer both spoke about the issue as it pertains to schools.
Rodriguez said he isn't speaking for the Delta County School District, but noted that the district passed a resolution when Paonia voted on a similar measure in 2013, stating that it was not in favor of the proposal. He said that since state-wide legalization, marijuana incidences involving students have increased in Paonia.
Rodriguez said he spoke with district representatives about the Hotchkiss election, and that HHS staff report seeing little change in incidences at this point. He also contacted the principal at DeBeque High School, since growing and distribution have been legal in the small town for a year. "They have not seen really much change in their schools up to this point," said Rodriguez.
The DeBeque principal also said that cannabis businesses are paying for education regarding cannabis for both staff and students, said Rodriguez.
Yantzer said that , the town should consider the education of students on the dangers of marijuana in writing ballot questions. Yantzer said local schools have benefited, but that false and misleading statements about taxation and school income projections have been circulating. "Just make sure we're well educated as a town about that money," Yantzer urged.
"I think you should put it up for a vote," said business owner Lynda Cannon, who attended the meeting for other reasons. While she said she has no strong feelings either way, "Economically, our town could benefit from it, if it's done correctly and monitored wisely." It's already here in the black market, said Cannon, adding that the town has a great police department. "I think they can handle it."
Marshal Dan Miller urged council to begin preparing now for what happens post-election. "We cant' be like the state and pay catch-up with our laws after it happens," said Miller.
Because final ballot language must be submitted to the county by Feb. 3, council will hold a special work session at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20 to finalize ballot language. The meeting will also include a discussion on proposed amendments to the town's water tap ordinance. The public is welcome.