City council sets rules for retail marijuana

Littleton City Council laid the groundwork for retail marijuana sales in the city, after voters in November strongly approved a citizen initiative allowing existing medical marijuana sellers to begin selling to the general public in 2021.

Council formally lifted the city’s ban on retail marijuana sales at its Dec. 1 meeting, while also setting limits on hours of operation for marijuana sales from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and capping the square footage for marijuana dispensaries at 2,000 square feet.

Though several councilmembers, including Mayor Jerry Valdes, had come out in opposition to the citizen initiative before Election Day, several have said the measure’s strong popular support — it won with 64.8% of the vote — represented a clear mandate from the public.

“Our citizens did overwhelmingly vote to approve retail sales, and I don’t know this for sure, but I think some of that has to do with the revenue that can be generated,” Valdes said at the Dec. 1 meeting. “Since our citizens do want these in Littleton, we do want them to be competitive.”

Littleton is home to three medical marijuana dispensaries, which previously could only sell THC products to people with a recommendation from a doctor. The locations are Silver Stem Fine Cannabis on Littleton Boulevard, Ascend Cannabis Co. on Santa Fe Drive, and The Hemp Center on Datura Street.

The citizen initiative, spearheaded with a petition drive by Silver Stem owner Stanislav Zislis and Ascend co-owner Scott Embree, overcame years of resistance from city council to retail marijuana sales in Littleton. The move was also opposed by Littleton Public Schools officials who said they feared retail sales would send the wrong message to children.

The language for the ballot question was relatively short: “Shall existing medical marijuana center licensees in the City of Littleton be permitted to sell retail marijuana on and after January 1, 2021?”

Though city council expressed a desire not to expand retail marijuana dispensaries beyond the three medical dispensaries already operating, City Attorney Reid Betzing brought up a technicality from the ballot language: because the language specifies “licensees” and not “dispensaries,” it could be interpreted to mean license holders could open new retail marijuana dispensaries in other spots in the city, while leaving the existing dispensaries to sell only medical product.

Because the city issued a fourth medical marijuana license for a dispensary that has since closed, that theoretically means Littleton could have as many as three retail dispensaries and four medical dispensaries around the city, for a total of seven, Betzing said.

Any new dispensaries would still have to conform to the city’s buffer zones for marijuana dispensaries, which mandate they must be at least 500 feet from day cares and 1,000 feet from schools, parks, halfway houses or other medical marijuana centers.

That leaves only a handful of suitable spots in the city that both conform to the buffer zones and include business or retail zoning, including in the South Park neighborhood on the city’s southeast side.

Valdes said he felt the intent of the voters was to only approve retail sales at the three existing medical dispensaries, but Betzing said the ballot language left room for interpretation.

“There’s some gray area there, and (the city) did not develop the ballot language,” Betzing said. “It’s not as clear as it could have been.”

Council also voted to set operating hours for retail marijuana sales from no earlier than 8 a.m. and no later than 10 p.m., and also voted to extend the limits of medical dispensary operating hours to the same times. Previously, the limits were 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Councilmembers Karina Elrod and Pam Grove voted against the motion, with Elrod expressing trepidation of how extended hours could impact neighborhoods if new dispensaries are opened under Betzing’s interpretation of the ballot language.

“We do not know how citizens may respond to a new marijuana facility at this time,” Elrod said.

Councilmember Kelly Milliman said she didn’t see a problem with extending operating hours.

“If bars and liquor stores can stay open until midnight, I don’t see a problem with people buying retail (marijuana until 10 p.m.),” Milliman said.

Council voted 4-3 — with councilmembers Valdes, Melin and Fey voting no — on a motion to cap the size of retail marijuana dispensaries at 2,000 square feet, the same as the city’s limit on the size of medical dispensaries.

Elrod spoke in favor of the size limit, again citing Betzing’s interpretation that could allow for more dispensaries in the city.

“To be consistent with what we’re experiencing as far as the current size of these facilities, I want to maintain similar regulations for retail as well,” Elrod said. “Especially considering these locations may go to other parts of the city that we’re not aware of or prepared for, and the potential that we could have much bigger locations or facilities than we’re experiencing or accustomed to.”

Mayor Pro Tem Scott Melin spoke against the size limit, saying the square footage cap on medical dispensaries is a throwback to the early days of legalization, and said other cities have not seen jumbo-size marijuana superstores.

“I think if council wants to let these retail establishments be competitive by expanding their hours, it would be inconsistent for us to now make them less competitive by limiting their square feet,” Melin said. “The voters voted on this 65-35, so let’s let them do their business.”

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