Commissioners in Garfield County await possible changes in state law before deciding on pot moratorium

Garfield County will have to wait until at least May 16 to learn the fate of medical marijuana growing operations in the unincorporated parts of the county.

On Monday, instead of ratifying an earlier decision to extend a moratorium on medical marijuana cultivation, the board of county commissioners decided unanimously to wait and see whether the state Legislature changes laws governing the industry before making any further decisions at the county level.

“Everything is in limbo,” said Commissioner John Martin on Monday. He noted that recent letters from the U.S. Justice Department have spooked state and local government officials in Colorado and other states that either have approved or are considering legalization of medical marijuana.

The Justice Department letters threatened to prosecute medical marijuana practitioners and government officials who have worked on codifying and enforcing regulations needed to enact a 2000 voter-approved amendment to the Colorado Constitution, which legalized the growing, sale and use of marijuana for medical purposes.

The Justice Department’s letter reminded government officials in several states with medical marijuana laws that cultivation, sale and use of marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

Commissioners Tom Jankovsky and Mike Samson openly admitted they are afraid the U.S. Attorney’s office would prosecute them if they voted on laws regulating the industry.

“Mr. Walsh’s letter makes it pretty clear,” Samson said. “There’s going to be a massive crackdown on these things.”

Garfield County’s moratorium has been in effect since June 2010 in order to give county officials time to draw up regulations governing the new industry. The BOCC voted on May 2 to extend the moratorium to May 2012 and was to adopt a resolution to that effect on Monday.

The county’s voters, in an election last November, voted to prohibit marijuana dispensaries and manufacturing operations in the county’s jurisdiction, which means any such businesses must close their doors by July 1.

But the voters permitted growing operations, and the county started working on new regulations to govern them.

County staffers, particularly Planning Director Fred Jarman, have repeatedly been cited by medical marijuana industry advocates as having told them that growing medical marijuana in unincorporated areas of the county should not be a problem.

Justin Rambo, owner of the Hydroponics Creations dispensary south of Glenwood Springs, said state officials already have decreed that a lack of local regulations would mean regulation automatically would devolve to the state.

Therefore, he said, the county does not need to worry about its liability for enacting regulations, but can leave the entire matter in state hands.

“I’ve had everything together” as far as compliance with state regulations and direction from local officials, said Justin Rambo, owner of the Hydroponic Creations dispensary on Highway 82.

Rambo said he had talked with county officials before establishing both his dispensary and his remote growing operation a year and a half ago. Setting up his operations, he said, cost a couple hundred thousand dollars.

Since then, he said, he has been waiting for the county to announce it was ready to begin issuing permits for the growing operations.

“Now, the first notification that we get is a moratorium that extinguishes all business,” Rambo said Monday.

One point of contention at the meeting was the fact that the earlier moratorium would not have shut down growing operations that were in existence before the moratorium took effect, while the resolution to extend the moratorium would affect all such operations, whether they pre-dated the moratorium or not.

The board’s decision came after hearing about an hour of testimony on Monday from medical marijuana business owners and others. Most speakers described a state of confusion among the proprietors and the general public.

“There are a number of people who came here in good faith … and started a business prior to the moratorium,” said Peter Fornell of Aspen, who told the county commissioners he has “a couple of businesses” in Garfield County.

Jankovsky said he believes the BOCC should do something to prevent new growing operations from starting up, but should allow existing operations to continue. Cultivation operations do already exist in the county, despite the fact that there is no county permitting process in place.

But Samson suggested the board wait until the end of the state legislative session, which falls on May 11, to see how the state handles the matter.

The others agreed, and the matter was tabled until May 16.

jcolson@postindependent.com

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