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Montezuma County sheriff sees benefits in lifting county ban on commercial marijuana cultivation

Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin, center, investigates illegal marijuana operations with deputies in this file photo. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
A permit system would help control illicit grow operations, he says; fees would raise revenues

Lifting the ban on commercial marijuana farms in Montezuma County and more local control on plant limits for private use may be the best way to combat illicit grow operations, says Sheriff Steve Nowlin.

Currently, the county prohibits commercial and retail marijuana operations in unincorporated areas.

While Nowlin supports the county ban on retail stores, he wants county commissioners to consider an ordinance that would establish a permit system for commercial marijuana farms so that they can be regulated. State permits and licenses would also be required.

He has introduced the idea to the Board of County Commissioners, which is reviewing it.

“It would be strictly for wholesale cultivation, not retail,” Nowlin said in an interview last week. “It is in draft form, and how it turns out will be up to the county commissioners.”

Part of the discussion are the benefits of county permit fees and taxes generated by commercial grow operations, which would provide a revenue stream for the county. The revenue could be earmarked for costs associated with regulating marijuana industry and mitigating its impacts.

Illegal grow operations are a problem in the county, Nowlin said, both in households that exceed the limit for personal or medical use, and with black market farms.

Law enforcement officers confiscate marijuana plants at an illegal farm on County Road 22 in 2018. Three adult males were arrested at 6 a.m. during a raid of the residence. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)

The Sheriff’s Office has conducted several busts of illegal grows in the past few years, Nowlin said, and more are expected.

“I want the illegal activity to stop, (with permits) we will have more information. The ones not in compliance, we can charge them under state statute and county laws,” he said.

He said a permit system also would incentivize legitimate growers to point out illegal operations that compete against them with the unfair advantage of skipping the required fees and oversight.

Nowlin emphasized that he still is fundamentally opposed to marijuana.

“It has a major impact on the community,” he said.

But as sheriff he is obligated to comply with state laws, and he believes a limited permit system for commercial grows will provide more control of the industry.

“If done lawfully, and done by ordinance, it helps us regulate that in the county, and it also allows for those within the ordinance, to say who is not in compliance,” Nowlin said. “They should want to get rid of black and gray market.”

Deputies have also responded to households growing more marijuana plants than allowed by law.

Under Colorado marijuana laws, adults can grow up to six marijuana plants for personal use and possess the marijuana produced, provided it is not sold. However, the maximum amount of marijuana plants allowed per household is capped at 12.

There are exceptions under state law that allow permits for up to 24 plants in a household for non-commercial medical purposes.

A county ordinance could regulate and require permits for residential medical cultivation over the 12 plants, which would be in addition to the required stated permits.

The ordinance could allow counties to more effectively mitigate potential impacts such as odor and lights, Nowlin said. It could prohibit personal marijuana cultivation on non-residential private properties as well.

Nowlin cites certain aspects of a 2018 San Miguel County resolution for regulating personal plant counts and grow locations.

Keeping up with illegal marijuana farms has been a challenge, Nowlin said. In 2020 and 2019, the Sheriff’s Office conducted a total of 12 raids on “drug market level” illegal marijuana cultivation operations, and more are being planned. Nowlin said there are more illegal operations are out there, but the office lacks the resources to deal with all of them.

A diminished hemp market has local growers considering switching to marijuana production. Growing hemp is regulated by the Colorado Department of Agriculture and does not require a county permit.

In April, hemp producer Green Lynx Farms, outside Mancos, requested that the county commission lift the ban on commercial marijuana cultivation in the unincorporated county.

The company would like to grow commercial marijuana at its indoor greenhouses to provide a local supply for retail shops. Cortez, Mancos and Durango all have retail marijuana shops, and at least one is pending in Dolores.

In 2020, retail sales of marijuana in Montezuma County totaled $30.1 million, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue marijuana sales reports, up from $23.2 million in 2019, a 22% increase.

In 2020, retail sales of marijuana in La Plata County totaled $40.1 million, up from $29.7 million in 2019, a 35% increase.

Any proposed change to the county’s ban on commercial marijuana businesses would require a change in the land use code and involve public meetings, commissioners said.

“We would need to hear from the people on how they feel about this,” said Commissioner Joe Stevenson.