The recreational holdout

Activists in Colorado Springs are still fighting cannabis prohibition 10 years after Colorado ended it—and gaining momentum

Colorado Springs Entry Monument

Amendment 64 passed in Colorado in 2012 and counties were given the opportunity to allow recreational cannabis sales—or not. El Paso County residents approved of recreational cannabis by more than 3,000 votes according to county election data. 

However, Colorado Springs’ local officials did not approve of legalization and decided to overrule The People’s vote. Because, as Mayor John Suthers and others have claimed, the Pentagon might pack up and move their five local military bases (including the Air Force Academy) if recreational cannabis was allowed in the Springs, gutting the identity and economy of the city. So, officials maintained prohibition of recreational sales (while begrudgingly allowing medical sales) despite voter approval—rejecting tens of millions of dollars in annual tax revenue with it.

Soon, though, that could be changing. If a coalition of cannabis activists can successfully get their pro-recreational cannabis measure on the ballot, one of the prohibition’s last stands might finally be coming to an end. 

“I think that overall our city council is opposed to marijuana,” says Cliff Black, a marjuana attorney and one of the leaders of the group of businesses and community leaders fighting for legal recreational cannabis in Colorado Springs. “I think our mayor is opposed to marijuana and based on their own opinions, they decided to circumvent what the voters had voted for.” 

“I just see the revenues that the city of Colorado Springs is losing,” Black says. “Conservatively, Colorado Springs is losing $10 to $15 million a year in tax revenue. I personally think it’s closer to $20 million.”

Manitou Springs is the only town in El Paso County that allows recreational cannabis sales—and there, business is booming. About half of the town’s total tax revenue comes from recreational cannabis sales, as its two dispensaries cater to most of El Paso County’s cannabis users. Those two Manitou Springs dispensaries, Emerald Fields and Maggie’s Farm, are the most profitable in the entire state (and some of the most expensive, because they’ve got the market totally cornered). 

“People can just drive over to Manitou and they can purchase their recreational marijuana and they can bring it back into the city and consume it at their homes here in Colorado Springs. They can go to Pueblo, they can go to Denver, or they can buy from the illegal market,” Black points out. “The fact that we don’t allow it in Colorado Springs is not stopping people from using it—it’s just stopping us from recognizing the tax dollars.”

And he points out, Manitou’s dispensaries are only a 10-minute drive from some of Colorado Springs’ military bases. If the Pentagon isn’t worried about Manitou selling recreational cannabis, why would the federal government leave just because Colorado Springs chose to do so as well?

“The Pentagon has never moved a base as a result of that,” Black says, referencing a base in San Diego and another in Washington D.C., both cities that allow for recreational cannabis sales. “It’s just not likely that the military is going to spend billions of dollars to move a base because of legal marijuana in Colorado.”

Which brings Colorado Springs officials’ public excuse for upholding prohibition into serious question. If the military isn’t going anywhere, then there’s no legitimate reason to deny the voters’ decision to allow recreational cannabis throughout El Paso County. 

That’s why Black, along with several other small business owners, veterans, entrepreneurs and social workers have teamed up. They’ve developed a new ballot initiative that would open up all existing medical marijuana dispensaries in Colorado Springs to also sell recreational cannabis under the same roof. There would be no need to license new stores or open more dispensaries anywhere in the county. Tax revenue collected from recreational sales would go toward funding mental health services, PTSD programs for veterans, and public safety as part of the initiative. And there would be annual citizen’s audits of the funds being generated to ensure that they are being used appropriately. 

“The voters voted for it back in 2012, 10 years ago and in that 10 year period marijuana has become a lot more socially acceptable,” Black says. “Our polling shows that the citizens still really support having legalized recreational marijuana.”

As of Feb. 3, the coalition had formed a petition committee to finalize the language for the ballot initiative. Once complete, the group will be issued blank petition forms to start collecting signatures. If they can collect 10% of the registered voter signatures on those petitions (somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,500), then the measure will hit the ballot and El Paso County voters will have another chance to have their voices heard—another chance to get some recreational weed. 

Schuyler Foerster is a retired military officer in Colorado Springs and one of the coalition members fighting to get this initiative on the ballot. In a press release about this measure, he points out that this would stymie the black market for cannabis while doing some very positive things for the community. 

“[This measure] sends significant tax revenues to support our city’s 80,000 veterans, strengthen our region’s mental health capabilities and enhance public safety,” Foerster said in the statement. “It’s a choice Colorado Springs residents can—and should—make for themselves.”

The coalition will have 90 days (roughly until May) to collect the necessary signatures to get this measure approved and placed on November’s ballot. And if they’re successful, Black agrees that there is a good chance that the voters will approve of it—again. 

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