Pot’s legal to smoke, but where do you buy?

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Brad Jones Contributor
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Colorado is moving toward legal marijuana, but venues for purchasing the drug remain relatively scarce.

While Amendment 64, passed last year by Colorado voters, legalized recreational use of marijuana and promised to regulate its sale like alcohol, don’t look for a pot shop next to every liquor store. Just as they can with medical marijuana – which was legal before last year’s vote – cities may elect to ban retail sales within their boundaries.

The choice leaves some in city hall choosing between missing out on tax dollars and a proliferation of pot shops, with their unique policing and regulatory challenges. The state legislature is asking voters to approve a levy of up to 15 percent on the drug; Denver city hall wants leeway to charge the same. A group opposing the tax questions says marijuana may be charged a total tax of over 50 percent when all applicable rates are added together. These taxes are in addition to standard retail sales taxes already on the books.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Colorado since 2000, though there wasn’t much of an industry around the drug until a 2007 court decision invalidated a rule limiting caregivers to five patients each, thus limiting the scale of any individual operation. Since then, Colorado has seen an explosion of medical marijuana dispensaries. In 2011, Denver boasted more dispensaries than Starbucks coffee stores.

The decisions by some cities to ban dispensaries have challenged stereotypes: Fort Collins, home to Colorado State University and a microcosm of Colorado’s shift to the political left in recent years, banned them in 2012. Meanwhile, conservative Colorado Springs features hundreds of medical-pot outlets.

Despite welcoming medical marijuana, which unlike traditional prescription drugs is subject to standard sales taxes, Colorado Springs banned recreational marijuana stores in a vote in July.

The Colorado Springs Independent, an alternative weekly, maintains a list of cities and towns’ positions on Amendment 64 shops. It counts only eight municipalities that have chosen to enact regulations for recreational pot; a host of other cities have formal moratoriums in place until after November’s statewide tax vote. Only five counties (not including Denver, which is a hybrid city and county) have paved the way for retail pot in 2014.

Entrepreneurs looking to cash in on this new industry have a host of regulatory and business hurdles to cross: Regulators at both the local and state level must give their blessing before a shop can open its doors. State pot business licenses will be issued starting Jan. 1, though applications are being taken at a rapid pace.

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