By MICHAEL J. PRAMENKO, MD

“Problems are nothing but wake-up calls for creativity”

— Gerhard Gschwandtner (Businessman and speaker)

Grand Junction voters have spoken. In the not too distant future, recreational marijuana sales are coming to a corner store near you. And while the decision was made at the ballot box, the Grand Junction City Council will soon convene to set the rules of the cannabis road.

There is talk that Grand Junction will only allow a limited number of stores to sell this lucrative and popular product. Lucrative is an understatement. As was recently reported in the Sentinel, marijuana sales in Trinidad Colorado totaled $71 million last year in a county of 14,000 people. Colorado sales surpassed $2 billion in 2020. This is big business and the citizens of Grand Junction will likely hand over the goose laying golden eggs to a small number of individuals with the knowledge of how to run these operations.

With legalization around the nation, increased access and use of marijuana has led to increased public expenditures on the medical, legal, and behavioral aspects of cannabis use. Even now, our own community struggles with substance abuse disorders that outpace any of our current resources to adequately manage. Our community continues its search for funding for a new high school, early childhood care, and other services essential to the public health and wellbeing of citizens of our town.

So why not do something different? Why simply hand over the huge and guaranteed profits of local marijuana sales to a handful of pot shop owners who may not live anywhere near Grand Junction or the Grand Valley?

As I mentioned in my previous column, a better approach to public health and prevention provides a more comprehensive and sustainable approach to health-care cost control. Investing in the social determinants of health produces a much larger return on investment than our current approach of treating chronic disease after it has started.

So here’s the idea — and this opportunity is forever lost if not done at the very inception of marijuana sales here in Grand Junction:

With the help of a local group of philanthropists, we can cover the start-up costs of a local cannabis operation that funnels and keeps profits right here in River City. That’s right, after the initial investment is returned with reasonable interest, all profits from the business will be reinvested in our community. More funds could go to parks and recreation above and beyond the percentage outlined in the ballot measure. Some funds could help pay for a new high school while other dollars could fund improved substance abuse treatment that is sorely needed here in our community.

Certainly, we can honor the wishes of the voters while simultaneously addressing some of the needs of our community and making sure that a new product does not increase the cost of health care while we are busy trying to control that same economic beast.

No, this would not be a government operation. This cannabis operation would be a private philanthropic organization that wants to improve life here in Grand Junction. This cannabis operation would enhance our ability to improve the public health and social determinants of health here at home.

I did not vote in favor of recreational marijuana sales for reasons I’ve previously presented — but many of my neighbors and friends did support it. Now that we’ve made the decision, we have the opportunity to do something totally different, something community oriented, something that stops the cycle of profiteering from products that have a far greater cost to society than their price tag would suggest.

Opportunity knocks Grand Junction. Anyone willing to answer?

Dr. Michael Pramenko is a past president of The Colorado Medical Society, board chair of Monument Health, and a family physician at Primary Care Partners.