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August 05, 2020

Littleton Voters Could Rule on Recreational Pot Sales

Citizen initiative seeks to allow medical centers to add retail

Littleton voters could decide this fall whether to overturn the city's ban on recreational marijuana sales, if a citizen initiative makes it onto the ballot.

If voters approve it, the citizen initative would permit the city's three medical marijuana dispensaries to begin selling to anyone over age 21 without a doctor's recommendation. City council would have the ability to regulate the stores' hours and whether additional recreational stores would be permitted.

The petition was spearheaded by a group called Residents for a Stronger Littleton LLC, led by Stanislav Zislis, the cofounder of Silver Stem Fine Cannabis. Silver Stem has seven locations in Colorado — including one in Littleton — and one in Oregon. The group's other leader is Scott Embree, co-owner of Ascend Cannabis Company, which operates a medical dispensary on Santa Fe Drive and has four other locations in Colorado.

Read the group's website. 

Because the group is organized as an LLC instead of a campaign committee, it is not required to disclose lists of donors.

The group submitted a certified petition with more that 7,000 signatures to the city in late July, and needs at least 4,419 valid signatures from registered Littleton voters to make it onto the ballot. City staff were still tallying valid signatures as of July 30, according to City Clerk Colleen Norton.

Read the petition language.

If the petition is found to have insufficient signatures, the group has until the middle of December to collect enough. If the petitioning group misses the November election but collects enough valid signatures by mid-December, that would trigger a special city election in February at a cost of up to $60,000 from the city general fund.

In a study published on the Silver Stem website, Residents for a Stronger Littleton estimates that Littleton could stand to collect between $935,000 and $1.5 million per year in additional sales tax revenue if retail marijuana sales are approved.

Read the group's financial impact assessment.

Under current state tax structure, no tax revenue would go directly to Littleton Public Schools. Revenue from an excise tax goes into the Building Excellent Schools Today fund, which subsidizes school construction costs in poor and rural districts.

Zislis said Littleton should approve the measure in part because the city is missing out on tax revenue being raked in by nearby cities. Englewood, Sheridan and Denver all allow recreational sales, while surrounding communities like Centennial and Highlands Ranch do not.

“It makes sense in a time when the city is projecting big drops in sales tax revenue,” Zislis said. “It makes business sense too — Littleton's medical dispensaries are well established. We've been good community members.”

Littleton City Council first banned retail marijuana sales in 2014, after Colorado voters passed Amendment 64. That statewide measure, which also passed in Littleton, 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, the only sitting member of council who was also on council in 2016, voted against the prior measure. Valdes did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Residents for a Stronger Littleton say a majority of Littleton residents support allowing recreational sales, citing a poll of 400 Littleton voters conducted in mid-March by Keating Research.

See the group's polling data.

That poll found 64% of respondents supported the proposed measure, 25% were opposed and 11% were undecided.

The poll also showed a strong partisan divide — 85% of Democrats supported the measure, versus 62% of unaffiliated voters and 45% of Republicans.

Residents for a Stronger Littleton also cited a letter written to city council by Littleton Police Chief Doug Stephens in 2016, saying he did not feel the first three years of legal marijuana in Colorado had led to an increase in crime or homelessness in Littleton, and did not feel that legalizing recreational sales would cause a problem.

Read Stephens' 2016 letter.

“Residents are currently able (to) purchase recreational marijuana within short distances of our city,” Stephens wrote in 2016. “We anticipate no spike in marijuana use or associated problems should Littleton authorize recreational sale.”

The police department stands by that assessment in 2020, said department spokesperson Cmdr. Trent Cooper.

“Marijuana is so easily accessible anyway,” Cooper said. “We've had minimal problems with the existing medical centers. It's largely a non-issue.”

Cooper did say that the department is concerned about increasing the number of licensees in the city. Currently, Littleton is home to three medical marijuana retailers: Silver Stem on Littleton Boulevard, Ascend Cannabis on Santa Fe Drive, and The Hemp Center on Datura Street. A fourth center closed down in recent years.

The ballot language wouldn't preclude city council from allowing additional locations, City Attorney Reid Betzing told council at a July 28 study session, though he said current zoning would likely exclude much of the city.

Betzing also told city council they also have the right to approve the measure themselves without sending it to voters.

Littleton Mayor Jerry Valdes told Betzing he would prefer citizens make the decision.

Source Englewood Herald.

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