A Chill Marijuana Debate

In Colorado, one town might embrace cannabis stores while another posts a keep-out sign. But on one thing they agree: leave your stoner humor at home.

GUNNISON, Colo.  Getting a feel for Gunnison, Colo., a town in the Rockies about four and a half hours southwest of Denver, takes a bicycle and a few minutes. On Main Street and nearby blocks you will pass a Wal-Mart, a pizza place called Pie-Zans, a bike-repair-and-espresso shop, the offices of The Gunnison Country Times, the campus of Western State Colorado University and Traders Rendezvous, which claims to have the state’s largest collection of antlers and mounted animal trophies. Ride long enough and you will find seven churches and five liquor stores, six if you count the Safeway.

What you will not find are any stores selling marijuana. These are not allowed.

To see the new Colorado after Amendment 64, which legalized recreational cannabis, you have to drive a half-hour north, to Crested Butte. It has three dispensaries selling marijuana buds and pipes and cannabis-infused candies and drinks. They are off the main drag; their presence is low-key, even deferential.

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The towns are not drastically different. Crested Butte, population 1,550, is for skiers and tourists; its main street is more colorfully painted, more self-consciously alpine.

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Gunnison, Colo., July 31, 2014 (Credit: Brent Moss for The New York Times)

Gunnison, Colo., July 31, 2014 (Credit: Brent Moss for The New York Times)

Gunnison, population 5,854, has deep roots in ranching and mining. It’s for hunters towing A.T.V.’s, students and underpaid faculty members at the university, and high-caliber athletes devoted to the strenuous life. A classic Gunnison sight is a $6,000 mountain bike racked atop a $700 Subaru.

The towns are divided by marijuana now, but many in Gunnison expect a change is gonna come. Voters will be deciding in November whether to legalize marijuana sales within the city limits, and if so, whether to tax them. The city voted down medical marijuana stores in 2011. But just a year later Gunnison County, which includes the city, voted 67 percent in favor of Amendment 64. To many in Gunnison, that is a sign that the world has turned.

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This is how it feels in Colorado, in Denver and beyond: Even people and places not overeager to embrace marijuana are not cowed by legalization. Seven months after plunging into the what-if world of legal marijuana, Colorado feels years ahead of the rest of the country in cannabis understanding. If you go to Colorado, as many out-of-town reporters have, armed with adolescent stoner jokes, you should know that Cheech and Chong were famous 40 years ago. Many of the advocates and entrepreneurs leading the revolution are in their 20s and 30s and will not relate. And the majority of Coloradans who are going on with their lives, living apart from the world of weed, will not find you funny.

Gunnison has two would-be ganja-preneurs, Jason Roland and Todd Houle, pressing for legalization so they can open a store. The closest they have to an adversary might be Matthew Kuehlhorn, director of the Gunnison County Substance Abuse Prevention Project, which works in the public schools. He puts himself on the tolerant end of those who want to discourage marijuana use, and refuses to exaggerate its dangers. “You can’t get the toothpaste back in the tube,” he said. “So now we’re finding ways to reduce harm and continue on forward.” He wants marijuana taxes to be earmarked for youth programs. Mr. Roland and Mr. Houle agree. The City Council isn’t so sure.

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The real drug problem in town, several Gunnisonians said, is alcohol — no surprise in a skiing-ranching-college town. Western State Colorado University has had to live down a reputation as a party school (locals call it “Wasted State”), and officials there do not think legal marijuana is going to help. The dean of students, Gary Pierson, said the school tries hard to send a drug-free message. Even authorized medical-marijuana users have to medicate off-campus.

I asked Chris Dickey, publisher of The Country Times, whether his paper had editorialized for or against Amendment 64. He couldn’t remember. “We have other issues. It’s a small town; the economy’s always kind of limping along. The environmental issues are always a pressing concern. The status of our local education institutions. Those are the things that impact people’s lives.”

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George Sibley, a writer who came to the Gunnison Valley in the 1960s, said the key to grasping local politics in the Mountain West is knowing your altitude. “Above 8,000 feet, it’s almost always Democrat, and down-valley it’s almost always Republican,” he said. “Down-valley it’s more agricultural, self-reliant, Jeffersonian-type Republicanism. But up-valley, it was miners, originally, and union people, and then it became posturban liberals with urban backgrounds.”

By this theory, Crested Butte, at 8,885 feet, breathes solidly liberal air. Gunnison, at 7,703 feet, is more in the zone of political flux. Mr. Sibley said he expected legalization to win, which suited him fine. But he said there was a silent faction in town, how big he wasn’t sure, that would vote against marijuana shops simply to preserve the status quo.

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“I actually think it’ll be slow,” Mr. Sibley said. “But life will not be very much different. There will be a significant new tax source for the community, and everybody will be even more used to it than they are now. You’re never going to stop it, of course, because if you put a challenge in front of a bunch of high school kids”

He let the thought finish itself.


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