Grand Junction is getting a little greener every day as medical marijuana dispensaries continue to pop up like weeds in the city’s retail landscape.
Local estimates indicate seven medical marijuana dispensaries operate in Grand Junction, and eight more are expected in the coming weeks in all sections of the city, according to reports from established dispensaries. Medical marijuana has been available through lesser-known local venues. The storefronts began appearing this year.
The biggest hindrance to keeping more shops from opening in rapid succession in the Grand Valley might be property owners such as City Councilman Bill Pitts. Pitts and his son-in-law recently declined an offer to lease their North Avenue storefront to a medical marijuana dispensary.
“It may be legal, it may be the safest thing to do, but I’m going to decline the opportunity to rent them the space,” Pitts said. “In today’s economy it’s tough to turn down a paying renter. I don’t like the idea of selling legalized marijuana. Where I’ve got other tenants, they complain.”
It’s an issue other local landlords have had to deal with in recent months, Pitts said.
Unlike a growing number of municipalities in Colorado, Grand Junction does not have any ordinances on the books about how medical marijuana dispensaries set up shop.
The number of medical marijuana dispensaries increased sharply locally and statewide after July 20, when the Colorado Board of Health scrapped the limit on the number of patients a dispensary can have.
Since 2000, medical marijuana has been legal for those who enroll in a state registry with a doctor’s approval. Patient names are not made public.
As of July 31, 393 Mesa County residents have obtained medical marijuana cards. The average age is 41 for all the state’s registered users, and 73 percent are male.
Almost immediately after the July 20 ruling, seven people inquired with Grand Junction’s Business Incubator Center on how to create a medical marijuana dispensary locally, and people still trickle through the door asking about starting up the business, said Chris Reddin, executive director of the incubator.
“People are coming in here interested in writing business plans, looking at it like a serious business,” she said.
New medical marijuana dispensaries so worried city leaders in Craig that they raced to put an ordinance on the books, placing a 60-day moratorium on the creation of any such stores in city limits. Problem was, Mayor Don Jones said, operators of a medical marijuana dispensary got wind of the impending ban and quickly set up shop, sliding in before the ordinance took effect. The store is Craig’s first and only medical marijuana dispensary and is near the town’s small Western-themed core. The ordinance runs through October, Jones said, but city leaders are expected to extend it another 60 days.
“There was nothing we could do,” Jones said. “All they need is a sales tax license.”
Indeed, opening a medical marijuana dispensary in Grand Junction is much easier than opening a liquor store or any kind of establishment that serves alcohol. In Grand Junction, application fees for liquor licenses from the state and the city can be up to $2,500, and yearly renewal fees can run nearly $700 in city and state fees. Applicants must appear for hearings, undergo background checks, submit corporate documents, provide a menu, financial affidavits, a diagram of the facility and pass muster as a moral character within the past five years if a criminal record exists.
Additionally, applicants must inquire among potential neighbors whether they would like to see a new liquor establishment near their businesses or residences. If a majority of new potential neighbors aren’t keen about the new business, it’s a good guess the city’s liquor enforcement and the hearing officer won’t approve a new liquor license.
“For as long as I’ve worked in liquor licensing, I don’t think I’d want to go through that process,” said Deb Kemp, deputy city clerk for Grand Junction.
To open a medical marijuana dispensary in Grand Junction, all that’s required is a business license and an agreement to collect sales tax.
Manager Tanner Willis of Green Natural Solutions on Rood Avenue said the business’ owner is opening four more medical marijuana shops the next four Mondays in Glenwood Springs, Delta, Breckenridge and Fort Collins, respectively.
Willis, 22, of Grand Junction, has worked at the store since it opened July 17. A radio ad swept in a surge of new business and others curious about how to obtain a medical marijuana license, he said.
“We’re not your average drug dealers,” Willis said amid the brightly lit, first-floor corner office. “The people we help are not just a bunch of teenage kids coming in and out to get high. Just don’t be so quick to judge. We’re helping people with legitimate needs.”
The store administers medication to about 145 patients, and about three to four new patients come in daily, Willis said.
Willis obtained a medical marijuana card after becoming afflicted with severe, unexplainable nausea. The 6-foot-4 Willis went from 190 pounds to a scant 132 pounds in one week, he said. Health care providers conducted numerous tests on him but couldn’t determine his ailment.
Nonetheless, he was prescribed cancer-fighting drugs that produced side effects worse than his condition. He said he was shunned when he asked doctors whether medical marijuana could help. Now, he takes medical marijuana orally through food or pills. He said his nausea has vanished and he’s able to gain weight.
“I’ve seen people in here that are 90 to 95 years old and others in a three-piece business suit,” he said. “We try to keep it as professional as we can, like going to a doctor.”
More than 800 physicians in Colorado have referred patients for medical marijuana use. Some dispensaries have doctors on site, or staff at dispensaries refer potential clients to doctors known to prescribe the drug. Patients afflicted with debilitating conditions can be granted a referral, but 90 percent of all patients on the state’s registry list their ailment as severe pain.
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said the holes now in the law concerning medical marijuana dispensaries and users are bound to cause backlash.
Possession of marijuana is against federal law, but the Obama administration in March ordered federal agencies to desist with dispensary raids. Dispensaries are allowed to have 2 ounces of medical marijuana per patient. Caretakers, or dispensaries, were allowed to grow six marijuana plants per patient, but there are no limits now on their numbers of patients.
“That has opened the floodgates,” Suthers said. “They can’t survive with the existing population. They have to create new patients. It’s really an abusive situation.”
By AMY HAMILTON