TELLURIDE – On New Year’s Day this year, hundreds of eager customers queued outside Telluride’s pot shops for their first legal purchase of retail marijuana products.
On April 10, Thursday, marking 100 days since retail marijuana went on sale in Telluride, there were no lines spilling out of the pot shops, where shopping is now as simple and fast as walking into one of the town’s three liquor stores and buying a pint of gin.
“We don’t have the lines out the door like we did on January 1, but business is slow and steady,” said one retail-marijuana store owner, who requested anonymity. “There are some quirks and things to work out, but overall we’re pretty happy.”
The quirks, the shop keeper continued, being changes in state regulations on the industry and the long-lasting problem of limited access to banking services still make running a pot shop difficult at times, said one Telluride pot shop owner who requested anonymity.
Local constraints make selling retail pot tricky, he added, in a town like Telluride, where limited grow space makes stocking supplies tricky. “We’re in the middle of expanding our cultivation site to keep up with demand,” he said. But despite the San Miguel Board of County Commissioners’ February vote expanding grow operations, merchants are still “looking into other areas” outside the county where they can cultivate their product.
Although marijuana shops can expand their cultivating sites, access to basic banking services is still a challenge – despite U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement that banks could start accepting deposits from licensed dispensaries in January. “I talked with the manager of a local bank,” said one seller, “and the way [the U.S. Attorney General’s statements] are worded, if a marijuana business does something wrong, the banks are tied to it.” Bottom line: “There’s too much risk for the banks to accept our deposits.”
And so pot shops throughout the state – and elsewhere in the U.S. – accept only cash, because the overwhelming majority of banks are insured by federal entities, which still recognize the drug as illegal, leaving state- and locally-licensed pot shops susceptible to robbery and theft.
Changes in state regulations are hard to keep up with, as well. “Lawmakers and regulatory agencies keep making all these changes at the state level, like for instance with packaging,” said one pot shop owner. When Colorado’s retail pot shops opened in January, state law required them to sell their products in childproof and opaque packaging. In March, the state began requiring all medicinal products to be packaged the same way, leading to higher costs for packaging and minor disruptions to business-owners.
Dollars and Costs
Retail marijuana sales are a boon for sales-tax revenues, and in January alone, the Town of Telluride collected more than $20,000 in revenues from the new industry. In addition to a whopping $19,053 in local sales tax revenues, the town received a check for $6,218 from the State government, the town’s portion of what Telluride Town Manager Greg Clifton called a “share-back” program to cover the costs borne by local governments to license marijuana dispensaries.
And while Telluride has yet to release its February sales tax figures (those numbers will be released at the April 22 council meeting), it did receive a check for $2,323 in February share- back revenues.
For its part, San Miguel County provided Colorado State with $5,786 in pot-products’ sales tax, and an additional $13,162 from the state’s 10 percent additional sales tax in February. The State sales-tax and share-back dollars dropped from January levels (that first month, the county generated $12,121 in state sales, and $35,237 from the additional 10 percent tax), and revenues from retail marijuana are here to stay, said Clifton.
But while retail marijuana provides a new income source for the town, it comes with a cost.
Veterinary physician Jen Karcsinski, owner of Mobile Unit One Veterinary Services, who treats animals throughout the region, reports an uptick in cases of animals ingesting marijuana since pot became legal.
Prior to Jan. 1, 2014, veterinary physician Allison Branson of the Telluride Veterinary Clinic treated an average of two to three animals a year for marijuana-consumption ailments.
But since the legalization of the drug, said Branson, she’s treated more cases of dogs eating edible marijuana this year than in years past. “We’ve seen six since January first,” she said, “Dogs will eat the pot plants, but they also really like the edibles, and they don’t need to eat a lot to have a problem.”
Dogs that eat marijuana edibles, she said, typically look like they’re drunk.
“They have an intention tremor, where their heads bob a bit. They also sometimes exhibit what’s called a truncal ataxia, where if you looked at them from the top, it almost looks like they’re making a wave motion with their body.”
And animals can die from ingesting marijuana, she added, contrary to the conventional knowledge that humans cannot.
Of the six cases she’s seen in 2014, two animals ate marijuana edibles off the street.
“And in Telluride, where so many dogs are off the leash, they see something that looks like candy and eat it.”
But dogs that consume antifreeze have similar symptoms, she added, making identifying marijuana as the culprit difficult.
“If your dog displays the symptoms, call the vet right away,” Branson advised.
Some humans are having adverse reactions to edible marijuana, as well. “We’re getting four or five pot calls a week from people who have over-indulged unknowingly or who are unfamiliar on smoking or eating marijuana,” said Telluride Chief Paramedic Emil Sante.
These patients, some of whom require a transfer to the Telluride Medical Center, typically exhibit symptoms of panic attacks and severe anxiety.
The problem isn’t new to Sante, who adds that retail marijuana does not seem to pose a significant threat to public health. “It could be that some people who already have anxiety issues can cascade into other issues,” he said, of patients experiencing marijuana-related health problems. “But they’re not serious medical issues.”
Telluride Medical Center emergency care physician Daniel Hehir, M.D. has treated multiple patients in the town’s ER for marijuana over-consumption.
“In my first 10 years of work in Emergency Departments I did not see one case of a patient who took too much marijuana to the point that it resulted in an Emergency Department visit,” he said. “Now it is a frequent occurrence.
“From an epidemiological standpoint, any time you realize that there’s a new situation in the community that’s driving people to seek care, that needs to be brought to the public’s attention. We never saw these problems ten years ago, but now they’re quite frequent.”
Nearly all of the patients Hehir has treated have reported consuming edible marijuana.
He cautions users: “There is very poor standardization in the industry, so be careful if you’re going to eat marijuana. My advice is to either stay away from it entirely, or be very wary of edible products. If you decide to take part in that, be sure to educate yourself on the dosages,” he said.
With Telluride’s busy festival season around the corner, Sante has been working with the pot shops on developing public education and awareness, with posters and literature aiming to reduce over-indulgence on marijuana and emergency medical intervention. One pot shop is taking a proactive approach, handing customers a pamphlet outlining state and local marijuana laws and information on safe consumption of edible products, but education can go only so far, he said. “Everybody’s body reacts to edible marijuana differently, so it’s tough.” Sante expects to start hanging posters around town and at the Telluride airport educating visitors and locals about the potential harm of over-consumption of edibles leading up to the mid-June 19-22 Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
Law Enforcement Reports Negligible Increase in Pot-Related Incidents
On the law enforcement front, retail marijuana hasn’t been a nuisance to local authorities. “I haven’t seen or heard about any more flagrant marijuana smoking outdoors than we had this time last year,” said Telluride Marshal’s Department Detective Rick Howell, who inspects Telluride’s pot shops to make sure they’re up to state and local regulations.
“It’s been a relatively smooth rollout in San Miguel County,” said San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters of the newly legalized retail drug. “I just hope people keep being as mature about the availability of retail marijuana as they have been, especially with summer right around the corner.”
Masters has noticed an uptick in the number of Driving Under the Influence of Drugs charges, however. “We normally have none,” he said, but since January 1, “Upon questioning, we’ve had some drivers admit to drinking and smoking marijuana because it’s now legal.
“I think people have a hard time determining how stoned they are, and what the legal limits are.”
In Colorado, five nanograms per milliliter of blood is the legal limit, and Masters said most of the DUID charges in the county are a result of the arresting officer’s observations of suspects’ displays of typical stoned behaviors.
Once arrested, the suspect is given a blood test.
But while the town’s pot shops are struggling to meet demand, and the emergency care physicians and first responders continue to treat patients who have overindulged on pot, Clifton says marijuana sales will continue to be an important new source of income for the town.
“In terms of sales tax revenues, the summer months are outpacing the winter months,” he said. “And the festivals are likely to generate some [pot] customers.”