Fate of shop in Palisade in voters’ hands

Photos by Dean Humphrey—ABOVE: Jesse and Desa Loughman are the owners of Alternative Health Care in Palisade. It is the last medical marijuana dispensary open in Mesa County. BELOW: Diane Cox, left, and others fly signs near the high school opposing the dispensary in Palisade.

Desa Loughman, left, of Alternative Health Care in Palisade, gives Laura Farmer signs in support of the medical marijuana dispensary. Farmer lives just across the Palisade town line in Mesa County but wants to put up the signs anyway to help the Loughmans.



Palisade residents aren’t just choosing on Nov. 1 whether to ban medical marijuana centers within town limits. They’re also deciding whether product sales should be subject to an additional tax.

Referred Measure 2A asks voters whether a $5 occupation tax should be added to each sale made at a medical marijuana center in town.

Town officials estimate the tax would generate $80,000 a year in revenue, a significant amount of money considering Palisade pulls in roughly $225,000 in revenue from its 2 percent sales tax annually.

The results of the tax question are moot if voters elect to close Colorado Alternative Health Care, the only dispensary currently operating in Mesa County. But if they allow the business to continue operations, their decision on the $5 transaction fee could have significant impact on the dispensary’s operation and the town’s finances.

The battle over whether the last remaining medical marijuana center in Mesa County should remain open or be shuttered focuses on an office that looks as though its employees could be signing off on home mortgages or selling iced cappuccinos.

Paintings adorn the wood-paneled and muted brown, textured walls. Comfortable black leather couches and chairs rest upon stained concrete floors.

The look is not accidental. When Jesse and Desa Loughman opened Colorado Alternative Health Care two years ago, they wanted to separate the Palisade dispensary from storefronts with neon signs, glass smoking pipes and Alice in Wonderland murals. They wanted patients — and any citizens they’ve invited to check out their operation — to feel comfortable walking through a doorway that’s tucked away from downtown on a side street.

Some, though, contend that appearances are deceiving.

Opponents claim businesses like the Loughmans’ have boosted the availability of marijuana and marijuana products in the community and contributed to a rise in student expulsions in School District 51.

“I think when a community embraces a pot shop, they’re saying, ‘This is OK,’ and I think that’s a bad message to send to young people,” said Diane Cox, who has spearheaded campaigns that led to the closure of medical marijuana businesses in unincorporated Mesa County and the city of Grand Junction earlier this year.

The Loughmans and their supporters counter that medical marijuana centers provide a safe, controlled venue to dispense the product and a much-needed source of jobs and tax revenue.

Banning them, they say, will redirect marijuana back to the streets where agencies can’t regulate it and growers aren’t accountable for what happens with it.

“Our livelihood is on the line here,” Jesse Loughman said. “Our patients’ livelihood is on the line here. We have four employees. We have a landlord who needs us to stay here. A lot people have a vested interest in this thing.”

As ballots continue to hit Palisade residents’ mailboxes, the debate about the legitimacy of commercial sales of medical cannabis is reaching an apex, with both sides canvassing neighborhoods, planting yard signs and competing for motorists’ attention and votes on U.S. Highway 6 west of town.

Phone call sets course

Jesse, 34, and Desa, 32, may never have headed down this path if it wasn’t for a phonecall Jesse received two years ago.

His sobbing mother was on the other line. She had been diagnosed with an advanced stage of breast cancer. She began receiving intravenous chemotherapy three days a week but, lacking an appetite and feeling severely ill, was soon ready to give up.

Jesse Loughman suggested his mother begin using medical marijuana, a radical notion for a 58-year-old conservative woman. He had joined the state’s patient registry after a motorcycle accident mangled his leg in 2006. But even at 6-foot-4, he felt uneasy entering most medical marijuana facilities on the Front Range. So he became his mother’s caregiver, making tinctures and hard candy that controlled her nausea and permitted her to continue treatment. She had a single mastectomy, and her cancer now is in remission.

With Jesse and his mother’s experience fresh in their minds, the Loughmans moved to Palisade with plans to open a small dispensary. They avoided advertising and rejected overtures to create a website. In April, they had some 100 primary patients. That number ballooned to nearly 300 — the limit allowed by state law — following the closure of shops in the county and Grand Junction.

They’ve deflected many patients to caregivers they trust and limit purchases to once a week. When a young man in his early 20s walks in with a medical marijuana card listing “pain” as his primary affliction, Jesse Loughman said he sells him a small amount of product and refers him to caregivers, insisting he’s not interested in dealing with those kinds of customers. The Loughmans say their patients’ average age is 49, eight years older than the state average.

The sickest patients often don’t smoke but rather use tinctures, salves and edibles, so infused products comprise 40 percent of Colorado Alternative Health Care’s sales.

Civic involvement

Even though a petition drive to shut down the business was stirring, Colorado Alternative Health Care began expanding last spring in advance of a host of new state regulations, one of which required the Loughmans to grow 70 percent of the marijuana they sold. They installed 32 high-definition cameras that are wired directly to the state Department of Revenue and monitor every movement in the business. Computer software tracks their work from seed to sale. The couple added office space they hope to lease next to the rooms where Desa Loughman works as a licensed massage therapist. Several prospective tenants have expressed interest but won’t commit until voters determine the fate of the business.

The Loughmans haven’t just dedicated themselves to their patients. They’ve immersed themselves in the community at large. They and their patients trimmed trees and painted shelters and other structures at two town parks. The Loughmans donated money to an anti-drug-and-alcohol campaign at Palisade High School. Their volunteerism garnered them public recognition by the Town Board earlier this summer.

“We just feel like it’s better to stop pointing your finger and get involved and be part of the solution,” Desa Loughman said.

Cox, though, isn’t moved by the Loughmans’ intentions and actions. She and other opponents believe the business is part of the problem.

The 63-year-old, fourth-generation county resident points to the fact that the number of patients on the state’s medical marijuana registry has skyrocketed from 4,000 to more than 120,000 as evidence that the system is being abused and that marijuana is more readily available than it used to be.

She also notes that just 4 percent of patients report having glaucoma, cancer or AIDS. By comparison, 94 percent report their condition as “severe pain,” according to the state Department of Public Health and Environment.

As she visited with media last week and went door-to-door in Palisade, Cox carried with her notecards containing handwritten notes about studies linking marijuana to crime and drug abuse and a large, yellow sign with black, bold letters urging people to “protect kids” by voting yes on Referred Measure 2B. That vote would close Colorado Alternative Health Care.

Cox said the rate at which dispensaries were growing a few years ago alarmed her and prompted her to push for their elimination. She led a petition drive earlier this year that yielded more than 150 signatures and triggered the Palisade election.

“This isn’t what people intended for Amendment 20,” Cox said of the 2000 change to the state constitution that created a patient registry.

One of her biggest arguments against medical marijuana centers is the fact that marijuana-related expulsions in District 51 are on the rise. After kicking 34 students out of school for marijuana-related offenses during the 2009–10 school year, District 51 booted out 49 students in 2010–11, a 44 percent increase, according to district data. Marijuana-related expulsions accounted for 49 percent of all expulsions in 2009–10; they accounted for nearly 53 percent last year.

Statistics on marijuana-related expulsions prior to 2009 in District 51 weren’t immediately available.

Family division

Cox believes there’s a correlation between the expulsions and the advent of dispensaries. Medical marijuana center supporters and District 51 spokesman Jeff Kirtland said there’s no way to prove a link.

“The issue we’re taking action on is kids who are either in possession of or distributing (marijuana). That’s it. As far as where it originates from, that’s potentially a criminal issue,” Kirtland said, noting law enforcement, not the school district, would address that.

Cox said she’s had limited interaction with the Loughmans.

“It doesn’t matter what their intentions are,” she said. “The results are the same. It puts a larger quantity (of marijuana) out there.”

The Loughmans said they’ve attempted to reach out to Cox and invited her to the business.

“She’s just stuck in her ways. She doesn’t want to hear the education behind the industry,” Desa Loughman said of Cox. “We’ve tried. Patients have tried. All kinds of people have tried. She won’t hear it.”

There are opposing views within Cox’s own family.

One son, Brian, purchased and operated God’s Gift in Clifton before it was shut down. Another, David, campaigned a few years ago for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana.

Cox said she didn’t want to discuss her and her sons’ differences of opinion about medical marijuana at length.

“Within every association or friendship or family, there are a variety of opinions about things. It’s pretty typical for people to agree on some things and not on other things. If people care about each other, they respect each others’ differences,” she said.

Citizens, likewise, are divided on the issue.

Maury Levy, who moved to Palisade from Denver three months ago, said even though he believes some patients are taking advantage of the system, he believes Colorado Alternative Health Care should remain in business.

“I think they should be left alone,” Levy said as he left his home downtown with his two dogs.

A woman walking near the post office last week who declined to give her name said she questions the legitimacy of dispensaries.

“It seems like there should be other places (patients) should get (marijuana),” said the woman, who said she’s lived in Palisade for six years.

Tours for police

Unlike in the county or Grand Junction, Colorado Alternative Health Care largely has been welcomed by Palisade town leaders. Officials say there have been no problems with the business or reports of criminal offenses affiliated with it.

“The Police Department has had no adverse interaction with Colorado Alternative Health Care,” Police Chief Carroll Quarles said, adding he and some officers have toured the business at the Loughmans’ invitation. “They have been completely open and honest.”

Quarles said a few minor accidents have occurred outside the business when customers backed into another vehicle, but none of the drivers involved showed any signs of being under the influence of marijuana or any other controlled substance.

Of the five town trustees reached last week by The Daily Sentinel, only Trustee Penny Prinster said she wants to see the business closed.

“I don’t want them to be open,” she said. “I know what (marijuana) does to children. There’s too many children involved.”

Other Town Board members believe Colorado Alternative Health Care is benefiting both the town and its patients.

“If the voters say yes, and close the dispensary, to me what they’re doing is they’re telling everyone in town, ‘OK, we don’t want to have a centralized place that grows a controlled substance. Now you can go and grow it in your backyard or next to your neighbor,’ ” Mayor Roger Granat said. “I think it’s opening the door to a lot of problems. With the dispensary, we are not faced with those kinds of problems.”

Trustee Robert Magill said the Loughmans have been open and honest with the town in sharing information and have welcomed anyone to visit the business, whether they agree with its operation or not.

“I’d like to see them (remain) open. I don’t understand the big panic on the business that some people seem to be believe in or have created for themselves,” Magill said. “I understand individuals may have moral issues with the products. I have issues with cigarettes, so I don’t smoke cigarettes. I kind of see it as people trying to push their ideas onto other people.”

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