There are good models for regulating marijuana businesses

By Chelsea Maude Avirett | Jan 12, 2017

City Council recently held the first workshop in a planned series to discuss how the city should regulate potential marijuana businesses in the city after the November vote to legalize the drug in the state.

While the overall goal of the workshops is to develop sensible regulations, it’s important that the city look beyond the hype about increased crime, impaired drivers and disputes between neighbors over odors. States that have legalized marijuana have seen little negative impact on quality-of-life, criminal, or health-related issues, particularly in cities that have thoughtfully regulated the industry.

The city should have significant authority to create such regulations. According to the Maine Municipal Association, the state will develop licensing requirements for marijuana-related businesses, but local governments will have the ability to develop ordinances to regulate the number and location of marijuana businesses, as well as provide additional regulations on their operations.

Colorado, of course, went through a similar process as it transitioned from a medical-marijuana system to legalizing recreational marijuana statewide. There, most marijuana-related businesses (including retail shops) are concentrated in four counties.

The city of Boulder has the most extensive marijuana regulations in Colorado, and it offers a useful case study for how to effectively balance concerns about a previously illegal substance with its business opportunities. Boulder’s approach has been to treat marijuana-related businesses from a zoning perspective and regulate them just as it would any other business, taking into consideration the unique challenges that marijuana production and distribution pose.

Unlike towns that have worked to cluster marijuana-related businesses into industrial zones, Boulder explicitly distributes them throughout the city by allowing them anywhere that is not a residential zone (this also includes buildings that have a residence), as well as adding caps to the number of marijuana-related businesses in particular areas. The overall goal is to integrate these businesses into the rest of the community, rather than creating a concentrated area that might encourage crime or public consumption.

Boulder also looked carefully at the unique industrial aspects of marijuana production, including developing strict ventilation requirements and taxing electrical use. Such issues are addressed in three specific ways: first, through ordinance amendment; second, through the application process for licensing new businesses; and, third, through inspection and enforcement.

For example, the ordinance amendments include specific restrictions on odors that are noticeable outside a business. Then, the application requires that the business submit a ventilation plan to explicitly address how it will meet that ordinance requirement.

How successful has Boulder been at mitigating these quality-of-life issues? As with most things, it comes down to inspections and compliance. This points to the importance of providing funding for inspections so that noncompliant businesses are not permitted to continue operating. Boulder offsets the costs of its interdepartmental inspection force through the licensing fees it charges marijuana businesses. Denver takes this enforcement a step further. The city created a strong procedure for protesting licenses when a marijuana-related business comes up for renewal; businesses with frequent complaints are subject to stronger licensing restrictions or are not renewed.

A lesser-mentioned issue with growing marijuana is how much energy the process consumes. While many of us are transitioning to LED lights, marijuana growers have found that LEDs do not yet provide effective light for growing plants. Temperature regulation is also vital, requiring heat or cooling, depending on the climate. The electrical requirement is one of the more forward-thinking aspects of Boulder’s code. Before marijuana was legalized, Boulder created a Climate Action Plan, which assesses a carbon tax on all local businesses and residences. Boulder assesses a similar tax on marijuana facilities to offset their additional climate impact, and the money is deposited into its energy impact offset fund.

I haven’t talked much about crime rates or the impact of marijuana-related businesses on the city’s police. That’s because Boulder hasn’t experienced a crime spree since marijuana was legalized. The Boulder Police Department notes that overall crime is down, as it is nationally, and as one would expect when you stop prosecuting certain offenses. That doesn’t mean that there’s no marijuana-related crime in the area. Just last month, five teenagers were arrested for a string of dispensary burglaries throughout Boulder County. But having a Wal-Mart in town probably stresses a police department (and court system) more than marijuana-related businesses would.

Ultimately, accommodating marijuana in a community doesn’t appear to be significantly different than regulating any other complex business. Rockland has successfully crafted reasonable guidelines for co-generation plants and short-term rentals. We can do the same for marijuana. This will require a careful study of the actual problems that cities face from marijuana-related businesses, ignoring the dubious statistical data trotted out to say that marijuana is more dangerous than the already-legal drug alcohol, and thoughtful regulation, with rigorous enforcement and funding to support such enforcement.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Maggie Trout | Jan 19, 2017 13:19

Should read:  "There it is;  the bias:  "But having a Wal-Mart in town probably stresses a police department (and court system) more than marijuana-related businesses would."  The author conveniently omits references to very real and problematic effects.  A report in 'The Atlantic' provides a more grounded perspective.  Whether it is the legalization of pot, or food sovereignty ordinances, there is a tendency to that which is "trendy," but also a kind of mythological embracing of the Woodstock music festival, (which wasn't even in the same county as Woodstock, NY), and by people who, if they weren't born on the site, were too young to experience the festival, or the political climate directly, and seemingly want freedom from... well, everything - except as it serves their own purpose.



Posted by: Maggie Trout | Jan 19, 2017 11:28

There it is:  "But having a Wal-Mart in town probably stresses a police department (and court system) more than marijuana-related businesses would."



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