Medicinal pot users, producers not so laid back over regulations
At its peak, 28 medical marijuana dispensaries dotted Mesa County’s landscape, staffed by about 200 workers who helped pull in tens of thousands of dollars in sales taxes each month for Grand Junction’s city coffers.
What a difference three months has made.
After April 5, when city voters decided to ban the commercial sale of medical marijuana, storefronts went dark, and some of the most vocal proponents for medical cannabis appear to be silent. Grand Junction’s ban came on the heels of a ban by county voters several months earlier. Hence, dispensaries in the county’s borders, save one in Palisade, disappeared off the map.
As of May, 3,575 medical marijuana card-holding patients lived in Mesa County, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the agency that issues licenses for legal marijuana use if it’s recommended by a physician.
Without retail centers, the county’s estimated number of medical marijuana users would require a combined 715 caregivers to grow the drug for patients, providing each caregiver grew plants for their maximum allotment of five patients. Medical marijuana advocates say the caregiver model in Mesa County has not developed to that extent, and patients have either gone underground to get the drug via illegal transactions, or they travel to neighboring counties to purchase medical marijuana from dispensaries.
“For Grand Junction people it’s really hard,” said employee Jene Craft of ColoMed Center, 4860 N. Townsend Ave. in Montrose, one of two remaining medical marijuana centers in Montrose County. “The tax revenue that is lost. ... You’ve really opened it up to the wild, wild West again.”
Craft estimates lately he is serving about 10 to 15 new patients per week, compared to two to three new patients a week when medical marijuana stores were allowed in Grand Junction and unincorporated Mesa County. Craft doesn’t specifically keep track of where patients come from, but he guesses the latest influx is a result of Mesa County’s ban. The demand has become so great that marijuana grown through the center cannot cure as long as workers prefer — about two to three months — before it is sold.
“We can’t keep up with demand, and it’s never been enough,” he said.
What happened, Craft suggests, is that by having medical marijuana legal and locally available for some time, the drug eventually became a pain-relieving staple for hundreds of people who initially were hesitant to try it for fear of its stigma. After weening themselves off some of their prescription medications, “People crossed over,” he said. “Now that it’s something that is part of their life, there’s more demand than ever.”
Medical marijuana cardholders not heading south to dispensaries in Delta and Montrose are making the trek east to centers in Rifle and Glenwood Springs, according to dispensary owners there.
Four dispensaries have set up shop in Rifle. A fifth, Herbal Outfitters, 125 W. Main St., closed recently.
“People who can’t get it (locally) are a little upset,” said Dave Enlow, an employee at Rifle Mountain Dispensary, 124 W. Third St.
Enlow said the business is attracting more customers from the Grand Junction area.
Business booms on the weekends at Green Cross Dispensary, 120 E. Third St., Suite A, a manager named Tifany said. She didn’t want to give her last name.
Tifany said a good cut of those new patients make the 140-mile round trip from Mesa County. While patients and caregivers are still growing medical marijuana, it has been harder to find seeds and clones, otherwise known as seedlings, because their sale is not allowed in Rifle, she said.
“It definitely is sad they have to drive all the way up here,” she said. “I hear it all the time. People don’t want to go to the way it was (before dispensaries).”
The dispensary model works for some people because it’s a professional atmosphere that doesn’t subject people to having to meet in strangers’ homes, parking lots or other unfamiliar areas to buy medical marijuana, said Shannon Gass of the nonprofit Cannabis Consumer Health and Patient Advocacy Association. Gass is in the midst of organizing caregivers into subscribing to an accreditation model.
Gass said he’s not surprised Mesa County residents didn’t stop using medical marijuana and now travel out of county to get it.
“It’s a symbolic relationship between formal and informal,” he said. “Walking into a building is a formal setting. Walking into a house, it’s an informal setting. It seems like people want the brick-and-mortar setting.”