Littleton to vote on retail marijuana

If approved, Littleton's three medical marijuana dispensaries could sell to anyone 21 or older


Littleton's three medical marijuana dispensaries could begin selling their products to recreational users, if voters approve a citizen-initiated ballot measure this fall.

Read Littleton voters could rule on recreational pot sales, Aug. 3

Listed as Ballot Question 300 on this fall's ballots, the measure's language is short: “Shall existing medical marijuana center licensees in the City of Littleton be permitted to sell retail marijuana on and after January 1, 2021?”

Littleton is home to three medical marijuana dispensaries: Silver Stem Fine Cannabis on Littleton Boulevard, The Hemp Center on Datura Street, and Ascend Cannabis Co. on Santa Fe Drive. A fourth medical dispensary on Prince Street shut down several years ago.

If approved, the measure would allow all three dispensaries to begin sales of cannabis products to anyone over 21 without a doctor's recommendation.

'It's time Littleton embraces it'

The measure was spearheaded by Stanislav Zislis, the cofounder of Silver Stem, which operates seven locations in Colorado and one in Oregon, and Scott Embree, co-owner of Ascend, which has four locations in Colorado. Embree, who lives in south Jefferson County, is funding a similar campaign seeking recreational marijuana sales in Lakewood this fall.

The effort is organized under an LLC called Residents for a Stronger Littleton.

See the group's website.

Zislis, who lives in Englewood, called the measure an idea whose time has come, saying citizens want the option and the city could use the tax revenue.

“Colorado's so-called marijuana experiment has not resulted in dire consequences,” Zislis said. “It's made things better for the state and for our communities, and it's time Littleton embraces it.”

A study published on the group's website estimates retail marijuana sales could generate between $935,000 and $1.5 million a year in tax revenue for the city.

The group also cites a poll of 400 Littleton voters conducted by Keating Research that showed 64% of respondents supported the measure, though showing a strong partisan divide, with 85% of Democrats supporting it compared to 62% of unaffiliated voters and 45% of Republicans.

“There's already retail cannabis in Littleton, it's just coming from Denver and Englewood,” Zislis said. “That tax revenue is taking a detour around Littleton. Right now we have COVID in the background, and the city is cutting its budget. This could help keep some services in place.”

Several nearby cities, including Denver, Englewood and Sheridan, already allow retail marijuana sales, while such sales are not allowed in several communities including Highlands Ranch and Centennial.

'Not the face I want for Littleton'

Littleton City Council first banned retail marijuana sales in 2014, after Colorado voters passed Amendment 64. That statewide measure, which got the backing of a majority of Littleton voters, established a constitutional right to possess marijuana for personal use, but allowed municipalities to regulate whether sales were allowed.

City council reaffirmed the ban in May 2016, after Zislis and others pushed council to overturn it. More than 50 people on both sides of the issue turned out for a passionate public hearing at that meeting. Council voted 5-1 against allowing retail marijuana.

Littleton Mayor Jerry Valdes, who voted against retail sales in 2016, said he remains opposed to the idea.

“I recognize it can bring in tax revenue, but that's not the face I want for Littleton,” Valdes said. “If you want it, you can take a short drive and go get it.”

Valdes said the existing medical marijuana dispensaries have been good neighbors and have not caused headaches for the city, but said allowing retail sales changes a community's image.

“Medical sales serve a purpose, for people's health,” he said. “Retail is just about getting messed up.”

Valdes said he is concerned voters will pass the measure, in part because he feels Colorado is trending more left-leaning politically.

“We have people moving here because they want to get away from the environment where they were, but then they want to change it into the environment they left,” he said. “As goes Colorado, so goes Littleton.”

Currently, the location of medical marijuana centers is strictly delineated by city code, requiring a distance of 500 feet from day cares and 1,000 feet from schools, parks, halfway houses or other medical marijuana centers. Littleton currently has licenses for four medical marijuana centers, of which three are active. Only the three active operations would be affected by the outcome of the ballot measure.

City council could choose to alter those location restrictions or issue more licenses, said City Attorney Reid Betzing, though Valdes said he is not interested in doing so.

'Pretty far removed from the plant'

Perhaps the most vocal opposition to the measure has come from Nate Thompson, who heads Littleton Public Schools' department of Social, Emotional and Behavioral Health Services.

Though Thompson asserted the district is not taking an official stance on the measure, he said he has seen negative impacts on young people from the proliferation of high-potency THC products, and feels legalizing retail sales in Littleton would send the wrong message.

“We're not talking about the stuff people were smoking in the '60s and '70s,” Thompson said. “THC products today can be extremely high-potency. They're pretty far removed from the plant.”

Thompson, who has been in the social work field for 23 years, said he has seen high-potency THC products cause hallucinations, heart problems, seizures and severe gastrointestinal problems in young people.

Thompson also cited statistics from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment showing that THC is the most common drug in the system of teenagers who die by suicide.

“To me, this is about the message Littleton wants to send to kids,” Thompson said. “I have nothing against the owners of the medical dispensaries in Littleton, and yes it's already getting into kids' hands in other ways, but it's helpful for us to be able to say look, the city already bans recreational sales. We have been working really hard to battle this, and this ballot measure works against our efforts.”

Zislis said Littleton's dispensaries have not had problems about selling to minors, and cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study asserting that teen marijuana use declined in states that legalized recreational marijuana between 2012 and 2016.

“At the end of the day, retail cannabis is already in Littleton,” Zislis said. “It's time to make this final.”


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