In April 2016, Buena Vista voters cast ballots on local measures related to the town providing high speed internet, three uncontested trustees, and whether or not retail marijuana should be allowed to be sold in Buena Vista.
Voters emphatically refused recreational cannabis, with 550 voting against the measure and 348 voting in favor, according to unofficial results reported by The Times on election night.
“I’m really surprised the measure failed as much as it did,” Doug Constance, one of the leading voices in the opposition to the measure with the No More MJ in BV group, told The Times after the vote.
This November, on a much longer ballot packed with names running for much higher offices, the question of whether recreational sales should be allowed in Buena Vista – as they are in Salida, Leadville, Fairplay and Gunnison – comes before voters again in the form of ballot questions 2A and 2B.
The first would impose a special use tax on marijuana sales, collected by the town on top of the state sales tax that would be remitted to the town.
The Sales Tax on Retail Marijuana measure would set the initial special use tax at 5% and can be changed at any time thereafter by the board of trustees as long as the rate does not exceed 15%.
Revenue from this tax would be earmarked to go toward funding parks, open space, recreation, infrastructure improvements, economic development initiatives, land acquisition, affordable housing initiative, community support grants and other similar projects, according to the ballot question’s text.
The second question, 2B, if approved, would direct the board of trustees to pass a draft ordinance crafted over several meetings earlier this summer that would allow stores in Buena Vista to sell recreational marijuana.
While the two questions address the same topic, they exist independently: Voters could approve 2A and reject 2B, and a new tax would be added to BV’s tax code in spite of the product it taxes being prohibited in town. Voters could also reject 2A and approve 2B, in which case retail sales could commence in BV without the additional tax.
The ballot question on the special use tax estimates that Buena Vista will receive $125,000 annually in sales tax revenue from the special use tax (assuming, of course, that 2B passes as well and retail shops are allowed to operate).
Arguments in favor of allowing retail sales lean on the increase in tax revenue, especially as Buena Vista looks to invest in new facilities for its police and fire departments.
With retail cannabis dispensaries located in towns on all sides of Buena Vista, proponents of the measure argue that the town is losing out on sales tax dollars that locals and tourists are spending elsewhere.
Town staff estimates that $125,000 will be brought in per year from the special sales tax alone, based on sales estimates from Salida, which has three stores, and Leadville, which has two.
Buena Vista has one medical marijuana dispensary, Ascend Cannabis, which intends to apply to operate as a retail establishment if the measure passes. The ordinance would allow for two marijuana establishments, either medical, retail, or dual-purpose, and the town sales tax revenue estimates assume that a second such store would open in town within the first year of retail sales being allowed.
Town administrator Phillip Puckett estimated that, if a second business submitted an application to sell retail cannabis as soon as it was allowed, the business could begin operation within 6 months after passage.
“We are generally turning away, on a daily basis, 20 to 30 people,” said Ascend Cannabis owner Scott Embree. If potential customers come to the medical-only shop on Main Street without a medical card, staff at Ascend direct them to the closest retail shops in Salida or Leadville.
Embree said that many people are reticent to register for a medical marijuana card given stigma against the plant, which is still a Schedule I controlled substance at the federal level.
Adding in other taxes on marijuana that the town would receive from the state, town staff estimated the town would receive more than $250,000 per year in sales tax revenue.
Embree estimated that the town would see $150,000 in revenue before an additional special use tax.
Those who are opposed to bringing recreational sales to BV question whether that increase in sales tax revenue would be offset by increased crime, and an increased burden on the town’s law enforcement.
“Colorado is being used as a study for many other states opening up to recreational marijuana … it’s very obvious through the studies that crime has gone up, accidents have gone up,” said Jerry Steinauer, a former Buena Vista trustee and mayor who opposes the measure. “Everything has gone up in Colorado, because of, apparently, let’s put it that way, apparently because of the use of marijuana.”
The Colorado Bureau of Investigation reported that violent crime rose by 25 percent since 2013 in Colorado, but did not link this increase to marijuana legalization.
Both former Buena Vista Police Department chief Jimmy Tidwell and current chief Dean Morgan asked the board of trustees to oppose bringing retail sales to Buena Vista, as have the organization Family Youth Initiatives.
In its meeting Monday, the Buena Vista school district board, after a brief discussion, unanimously agreed to issue a statement opposing the measure.
The police chiefs said that marijuana intoxication was more difficult to ascertain than alcohol during traffic stops for possible DUI’s, and FYI representatives argued that bringing recreational sales to BV would increase Chaffee County’s rates of teenage substance use.
Members of the school board did not discuss their reasoning for opposing the measure at the Oct. 12 meeting.
In its analysis, town staff did not provide an estimate of costs associated with increased burdens on the police department.
“There’s no way I could see to easily quantify that,” Puckett said. While the police department is currently understaffed, once those positions are filled, Puckett “doesn’t see having to increase (the department’s current staffing model) to cover having a retail shop. Marijuana is already here.”
Embree said, “I believe that we would not create any more stress on the police department by going recreational.”
Ascend operates three stores in the Denver area, one of which is recreational.
“I haven’t seen that increase the time that we’ve been medical to recreational,” Embree said. “I think there’s some concern that there will be people living outside the door and vagabonds, and I just don’t see that.”
Steinauer was on the Board of Trustees when Colorado approved medical marijuana.
“I had friends at that time that used it illegally, because it wasn’t approved at that time, because they got relief from it that they couldn’t get without buying expensive drugs. So, I saw some good in the medical. But that went far awry,” Steinauer said.
‘They were using it, but they didn’t flaunt it. They didn’t jump in their car and go racing or they weren’t criminals breaking into people’s houses so they could afford it … I went along with it at that time, and I guess I should be sorry I did, but I thought it was an okay thing for people to be able to get a script for it. But I don’t believe in the recreational stuff.”
Steinauer questions whether Buena Vista really needs an additional source of sales tax revenue, and is critical of the town’s broadening of the size of its staff since he was on the board.
He worries that bringing in retail marijuana will change Buena Vista in a way that won’t be worth the money it could bring in. He’s concerned about children getting the product from adults who buy it.
“People coming here from other places and trying to make us look like those other places they came from. I just don’t believe in that,” Steinauer said.