The Pueblo Prohibition Fight

Features - Legislation

A ballot measure in Pueblo County, Colo., may spell the end of recreational cannabis in the region and set a precedent for all states with ‘opt-out’ provisions in their cannabis laws.

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October 3, 2016
Brian MacIver
The cannabis fields at Los Sueños Farms (pictured left) would disappear if the November ballot measure looking to ban recreational marijuana in Pueblo County passes.
Photo: Courtesy of Los Sueños Farms

Pueblo County, Colo., is an outdoor marijuana grower’s dream: Its hot, dry summers begin early and end late, it receives loads of sunshine throughout peak growing months, and the vast and open geography allows for sprawling growing operations.

It’s no wonder businesses like Strawberry Fields, which operates a 2-acre greenhouse facility and two retail centers, and Los Sueños Farms, a 36-acre outdoor growing operation, along with 111 other cultivators have made the southern Colorado region their base of operations.

And the cannabis industry has benefited the local economy: It accounts for over 1,300 jobs in the county; nearly 40 percent of 2015’s commercial building permits were related to the cannabis industry, representing just under $15 million in commercial building expenditures; as of June of this year, the county has earned $1.8 million in taxes and fees from the marijuana industry and is projecting to collect over $3.5 million by year’s end; and, starting in 2017, Pueblo will become the first government entity to give scholarships for higher education funded entirely by the cannabis industry, according to the Pueblo County Commissioner Office.

But most of those jobs, building projects, scholarships and cannabis businesses could be extinct after Nov. 8. A measure asking voters to decide whether the county should opt-out of the recreational marijuana program is on the election ticket and could end Pueblo’s vibrant recreational cannabis industry.

“Our tenants out here at the farm … it would put them out of business, and our investment in land and infrastructure would be destroyed,” says Bob DeGabrielle, one of the four land owners at Los Sueños Farms.

Just as concerning is the fact that this can happen in any other community in Colorado and in any other state that has opt-out provisions in their cannabis laws (i.e., Oregon and Alaska).

“This is the tip of the spear with marijuana rollback in the whole country,” says Rich Kwesell, who co-founded Strawberry Fields along with his brother Mike in 2011. “This is a very important battle right here. Even if this is a small little county and there’s 23 shops, it means a lot through precedence.”

How It All Started

This issue dates back to the passing into law of Amendment 64, which legalized the recreational use, sale and production of marijuana in the Centennial State. A provision in Amendment 64 allows counties and cities to opt-out of recreational cannabis.

Paula McPheeters, co-founder of Pueblo for a Healthy Future, the group responsible for this year’s ballot measure, says Pueblo County has suffered since the recreational cannabis industry emerged. She claims there has been an increase in crime, homelessness and growth in the black market, and cites the cannabis industry for those wrongs.

“[Pueblo] is now defined by marijuana,” she said in a statement to Cannabis Business Times. “We believe the health and safety of our community is more important than the marijuana industry.”

In an interview with the Pueblo Chieftain in February 2015, McPheeters said she never supported legalizing recreational cannabis. In that interview, she says she became an active fighter against the industry after speaking with her fifth-grade son, who had just gone through a Drug Abuse Resistance Education program.

Pueblo for a Healthy Future’s effort to secure a place on the ballot to opt out of Amendment 64 was at first challenged by the cannabis industry. In question was the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot: Amendment 64 calls for cannabis to be regulated like alcohol, and ballot measures about the prohibition of alcohol require signatures from 15 percent of the county’s voters instead of the standard 5 percent. McPheeters’ group did not reach 15 percent, but the judge cited vagueness in the law and allowed the measure to appear on the ballot. The 15 percent requirement has since been made explicit.

Brothers Mike (left) and Rich (right) Kwesell own one of Pueblo’s premier greenhouse cannabis operations, Strawberry Fields. The greenhouse covers two acres of land, and they grow both recreational and medical marijuana, meaning they will most likely be able to stay in business by converting their operation to medical-only.
Photo: Brian Kraft

The Fight Against Misinformation

The grievances brought forward by the prohibition group would be valid if any of them were true, according to DeGabrielle.

“The people that are fighting against it are predominantly people that don’t know anything about the business, and they make innuendos and statements that are not even valid statements,” he says.

For example, no proven link exists between homelessness in Pueblo County and the cannabis industry, according to Community Information Manager Paris Carmichael, since Social Services are not allowed to ask about drug use when processing homeless individuals and families.

As for crime and the increase in the area’s black market, County Commissioner Sal Pace says Pueblo has seen an increase in crime, but that marijuana is not the culprit. “We have seen an uptick in crime that’s mostly due to opioid abuse,” he says.

In fact, the cannabis industry is helping reduce drug addiction, homelessness and teen opioid use in Pueblo, Pace says. According to county data, marijuana tax and licensing revenue has been spent on a Medical Marijuana Academic Research Grant, a Marijuana Community Impact Grant and a handful of other community improvement projects.

Counterintuitively, growers who are facing this kind of opposition in their communities should not focus their efforts on untangling misinformation about the cannabis industry, according to Sheila MacDonald, the campaign manager for Growing Pueblo’s Future, the pro-cannabis campaign working in Pueblo founded by DeGabrielle.

“Our job is really to get the messages out that move our people, and explaining that ‘cannabis didn’t cause homelessness’ doesn’t move us,” MacDonald says. “But talking about jobs, talking about the benefits cannabis brings… are what move our swing voters to vote ‘no.’ … You need to educate the voters on what cannabis is and what it can bring to the community.”

The Fight Against the Media

The cannabis industry also has had to deal with the local media seemingly taking the side of the prohibitionist movement, according to Kwesell. Stories and op-eds appeared in The Pueblo Chieftain over the past 18 months blaming nearly all of the county’s issues on regulated cannabis, often based on anecdotal or unsubstantiated claims such as the link between legal cannabis and homelessness.

That is, until Kwesell walked into the paper’s office one day and sat down with the editors.

Media outreach is critical to getting ahead of these movements and fighting them, says Olivia Mannix, co-founder and co-CEO of Cannabrand, a Colorado-based cannabis marketing and branding agency.

“This is such a local issue, it’s really important to get local media involved and have local media writing stories about the case at hand and what people’s views are, and then having media actually interviewing people in Pueblo county … about what they think about this,” she says.

While this Strawberry Fields worker probably will not lose her job come Nov. 8, she is one of the lucky few. Most of the region’s cultivators do not grow medical marijuana and will have to close up shop if the ballot measure is approved.
Photo: Brian Kraft

Since Kwesell met with the local paper, stories have been more nuanced and pro-cannabis op-eds have been published more frequently, he says.

These more balanced stories and pro-cannabis opinion pieces are a very important tool in fighting against the prohibition movement, according to MacDonald. “[The] reason why they matter to me is that I can … [mail] them out” in packets to those she calls “movers and shakers,” consisting of targeted voters and “all the thought leaders in the community like: people who are on boards, electives, former electives, home-owner [association] presidents, I threw in there people who own bars or salons. ... Talkers.”

The Fight for Voters

Kwesell has been heavily involved in the fight for cannabis’s future in Pueblo County. He spends a lot of his time on committees, coordinating different parts of the Growing Pueblo’s Future campaign.

“I also help organize and go out to do the canvassing with a little army of owners, license holders and other employees for these different license holders,” he says.

Roughly 20 canvassers have been showing up almost every Saturday, according to MacDonald, and have been knocking on doors in different parts of the county to see where voters are leaning.

“Looking [at] folks eye-to-eye is really winning half of the battle,” Kwesell says. “These folks think that we’re monsters with hooves and razor-sharp teeth. And when they see we’re just like them, generally it’s a good way to melt [that image].”

“We’re trying to educate the public with advertising, billboards, every form of communication we can from canvassing to marching in the parade,” DeGabrielle says.

Kwesell still believes the vote could go either way. “The ones that are against us seem to be vehemently against us,” he says. “And I look at those folks and I am often worried that I am certain they’re going to vote. And when I see the counterpart of the individuals on our side of the issue … I wonder if they’re going to vote.”

While election results are still up in the air, one thing is certain: November is going to make or break the cannabis industry in Pueblo, and maybe for other counties across the country.