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Medical marijuana dispensary permit passes

Posted: Thursday, Mar 14th, 2013

Alamosa County commissioners voted unanimously on Wednesday to approve a one-year special use permit for a proposed medical marijuana facility at 5986 Budweiser Way. Adrian Maestas, above, explains he and business partner Leonard Garcia want to provide the service to many Alamosa-area customers who currently travel to La Casa Cannabis in San Luis. Courier photo by Rudy Herndon

Courier staff writer

ALAMOSA — In 2010, Darius Allen counted himself among the minority of voters who opposed a ballot initiative that paved the way for medical marijuana dispensaries to set up shop in Alamosa County.

But as the chairman of the county commission, Allen believes he has an obligation to set his personal feelings aside and honor the will of the majority who supported the initiative.

He and the rest of the commission did just that on Wednesday, voting 3-0 to approve a one-year special use permit for La Casa Cannabis 2, LLC.

Applicants Adrian Maestas and Leonard Garcia plan to build the dispensary on vacant property at 5986 Budweiser Way. At this point, they now have 180 days to work their way through the final stages of the state permitting process.

If they clear that hurdle, their business would still face numerous conditions going forward.

For one thing, the dispensary’s hours of operation would be limited from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Mondays through Saturdays; it would also be closed on legal holidays.

Furthermore, no one under the age of 18 would be allowed on the premises, unless she or he is accompanied by a parent, and has a valid registry identification card.

If commissioners find that the facility is not in compliance with state or county laws, they could revoke the special use permit at any time.

Allen called marijuana a “terrible thing,” and said his heart was telling him to vote against the applicants’ request. But he added that he and his fellow commissioners raised their right hands and said they’d swear to uphold the law when they took the oath of office.

“I voted against (the 2010 ballot initiative),” he said. “But we’re a democracy.”

He told a full crowd that the board reached this point only after he and other county officials held numerous meetings and public hearings on the issue of medical marijuana dispensaries.

“It’s not something that we just jumped on and said: ‘let’s do it,’” he said.

The board heard from several opponents who suggested that medical marijuana users could just as easily grow their own cannabis.

But Commissioner Michael Yohn said he’d rather see a regulated business, as opposed to individual backyard growing operations.

“I think it might be a good thing to have it at a dispensary where it is sort of regulated,” Yohn said.

A medical marijuana dispensary is not high on the list of new businesses that Commissioner Marianne Dunne would welcome to Alamosa County.

“I tend to say that people can buy their gasoline in Alamosa and drive to Conejos,” she said.

But Dunne ultimately said she believed the board was required to approve the permit for La Casa Cannabis 2, since the applicants met all of the criteria set forth under state and county laws.

For the past three years, Maestas and his business partner have operated a medical marijuana dispensary in San Luis, drawing many of their customers from Alamosa County.

According to Maestas, they’ve never had any problems with law enforcement during that time.

Yet that assurance did not ease the concerns of some residents who live in the general area of the Alamosa County site. Among other things, they questioned the potential impacts that the dispensary could have on public safety, young people and a nearby residential neighborhood.

Former law enforcement official Rick Needham told the board a local dispensary would not promote public safety in any way, shape or form.

Needham, who also served as the vice president of the Colorado Drug Investigators Association, went on to list an inventory of negative health effects he linked to marijuana use.

“It isn’t harmless,” he said. “It causes a lot of problems.”

Marijuana is especially dangerous when users get behind the wheel of a car, or operate heavy machinery, he said.

Needham said he believes that Maestas’ customers would smoke or ingest any cannabis they purchase before they head away from the premises.

“They’re going to get on the road, and they’re going to be loaded,” he said.

Needham said he’s seen many cases when medical marijuana ended up at area schools, and other audience members shared his concerns.

The word on the street, according to Lorna Sowards, is that 97 percent of Alamosa High School students are using — or have used — marijuana.

“To me, that’s a huge red flag for Alamosa County,” she said.

But Yohn disputed those numbers, telling the audience that he’d seen a school banner which says that 70 percent of students do not use marijuana.

The potential for greater abuse among young people still concerned David Broyles, though.

He also worried that the dispensary’s activities would place a greater burden on law enforcement, costing taxpayers more money over the long run.

Local anesthesiologist James Robbins scoffed at the notion that cannabis has any therapeutic value.

“I will not dignify it by calling it ‘medical marijuana,’” he said.

Robbins said that people in his profession shudder at the thought that a patient might be under the influence of marijuana when he or she comes in for an appointment.

But he also opposed the applicants’ request for personal reasons: He said his grandchildren live within a short distance of the dispensary site.

If they ask him what kind of business the owners are running, Robbins said he would have to tell them that it’s a “drug-pushing place.”

Dr. Martin Sowards said he’s also concerned about the site’s proximity to his family’s home.

“If people really need it, they can drive to San Luis,” he said.

But from his experience dealing with medical marijuana users, he believed they’d be better off without it.

One man who had a medical marijuana prescription came into his office seeking help, after his family life fell apart and he lost his job. The doctor suggested that the man should quit using marijuana, and sure enough, the man put his life back together by following that advice, Sowards said.

Maestas acknowledged that Sowards and others have sincere and legitimate concerns about the dispensary.

But he assured commissioners he will be taking steps to implement any terms and conditions that are spelled out under state or county laws.

“Our goal is to meet the requirements that all of you folks have set forward,” he told the board.

One of those steps, in particular, seemed to satisfy Commissioner Yohn.

According to Maestas, growing operations for the new business will be restricted to Costilla County, where security measures are already in place.

The dispensary also plans to maintain an extensive database of its customers and sales, he said, and it will be sharing that information with state regulators who oversee Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Registry.

Among other things, it will also ensure that customers refrain from smoking or consuming medical marijuana on the premises.

Maestas said he also hopes that the dispensary can become a part of the community.

To that end, he said he welcomes neighbors’ thoughts about signage or other issues.

Just don’t expect him to move the dispensary to another county.

“This community voted for it,” he said. “They’re entitled to the choice of medicine they want. It’s their constitutional right.”

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