Twenty businesses in Fort Collins could soon be forced to shut down. They’re not just any businesses, they’re medical marijuana dispensaries. Voters there, as in six other counties or towns in the state, must choose whether or not to ban the retail sale of medical marijuana. CPR’s Ben Markus has more.
Reporter Ben Markus: A windowed store front in Old Town Fort Collins is emblazoned with the words: 'No on 300.' Question 300, on the November ballot, asks voters here if they want to shutter the city’s fledgling dispensaries.
Inside the campaign headquarters, a speaker blares music from the Doors. In the back is a small phone bank, where volunteers are busy lobbying potential voters.
Volunteer: My name is Danielle, I’m here today for the, ‘No on 300’ campaign. I was just wanting to talk to him about the upcoming election in Fort Collins to ban medical marijuana centers, get his take on how he felt.
Reporter: One of the guys running this operation is dispensary owner and patient Steve Ackerman. Twenty-five years ago a car crash put him in a wheelchair for life. He’s been using marijuana to treat phantom pain in his legs since before voters approved it for medical use in 2000.
Steve Ackerman: But I was a criminal then. Luckily and happily in 2000 the voters of the state of Colorado decided to change their constitution to make it so that I am not a criminal to use the medicine that works for me.
Reporter: He says the highly regulated dispensaries are the safest way to deliver that medicine. By law, dispensaries are secured with 24-hour video surveillance. They’re in commercial locations, and must keep extensive records. Ackerman says he had to go through an FBI and IRS background check.
Ackerman: None of this will occur if the model is taken away. If medical marijuana centers are banned in Ft Collins, sales tax will not be charged, patients will have reduced access and be forced to try and find other avenues to obtain their medicine.
Reporter: Former Mayor Ray Martinez sees it differently.
Ray Martinez: They’re concerned about the future of marijuana, we’re concerned about the future of the people.
Reporter: He’s the head of Concerned Fort Collins Citizens which pushed to get the question on the ballot. He says citizens aren’t going to stand for the proliferation of retail marijuana throughout the city.
Martinez: So I think that’s what kinda got the citizens going and saying, ‘you know what? Maybe we need to put a stop to this because it’s gone too far.'
Reporter: As evidence of how far it’s gone, he points to a Poudre school district study which found that the number of drug-related expulsions skyrocketed 300 percent after dispensaries opened in 2008. The district superintendent said most of the cases involved marijuana. And he says dispensaries might be a factor.
Then there’s the increase in crime.
Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith: The closer the proximity to the dispensaries, the more police incidents involve marijuana
Reporter: Justin Smith is sheriff of Larimer County. He supports banning dispensaries.
Smith: I had noticed -- and this is part of what brought my concern up -- since the dispensary model came into play, I had just seen, as I look at the daily reports that are a recap of events, marijuana popping up in more situations as a root cause as why we were out there.
Reporter: He says a subsequent keyword search of his records showed a 20 percent increase in marijuana-related incidents in the county. In the Fort Collins city limits, he says it was a 40 percent increase.
Brian Vicente of Sensible Colorado, a marijuana advocacy group, disputes that. He says other studies show areas with dispensaries are actually safer. In fact, the Denver Police Department and Denver Post -- looking at 2009-2010 numbers -- both found that overall crime decreased in areas near dispensaries.
Despite that, some 75 other cities and counties have voted to ban retail medical marijuana. Something Vicente says may change in the future as people get more comfortable with dispensaries.
Brian Vicente: I think most communities, like Aurora and other cities that have banned dispensaries,are going to realize that their neighboring communities are actually bringing in large amounts of tax revenue, there’s job creation going on and patients are just being better taken care of in those communities.
Reporter: Like Commerce City and Breckenridge which are both voting on an excise tax for dispensary sales. Still, half a dozen cities and counties are considering an outright ban, including Steamboat Springs, Yampa and Brush.
If a ban passes in Fort Collins, dispensary owner Steve Ackerman says he would lose a business he’s invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in.
Ackerman: The result for me personally will be devastating.
Reporter: Not just for the business owners like him -- but, he says, for the thousands of registered medical marijuana patients in Fort Collins who will have to find their medicine somewhere else.
[Photo: Eric Whitney] at a pro MMJ legislative rally in Denver 2 yrs ago