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Bringing marijuana to Morrison — where Red Rocks concertgoers tailgate into the night — is harder than it seems

Of the thousands of revelers who head up the hill from Morrison to Red Rocks Amphitheatre to catch a show on any given night, a portion is probably high, about to get high or at least thinking about getting high.

But one thing’s for sure — they didn’t buy their weed in Morrison.

That’s because this tiny town of fewer than 500 — for decades the gateway to mind-altering music shows at the famous concert venue where tailgating goes down on an epic scale — doesn’t have a single pot shop.

That could change after voters this past spring finally opened the door to the establishment of one licensed dispensary in town, nearly a decade after Colorado first legalized recreational cannabis sales. But marijuana in Morrison is turning out to be easier said than done.

That’s because the April 5 ballot measure, which passed overwhelmingly with 82 yes votes to 39 no votes, specified that the one allowed shop in town would have to be “east of the Dakota hogback formation.” That means away from well-trod Bear Creek Avenue, where for years a cozy collection of restaurants, bars and boutiques have drawn in thousands of tourists and locals to this quaint corner of Jefferson County.

It’s a carve-out that Katie Gill, Morrison’s mayor pro-tem, said was likely the only way the ballot measure would have passed.

“This was a way the town could put it to voters: Would you like there to be sales of marijuana here — but east of the hogback,” she said. “I think if we had run it anywhere in town, it would have been different.”

But sequestering a pot shop to the other side of the 50 million-year-old sandstone ridge that separates the plains from the foothills up and down Colorado’s Front Range has proven to be a dud for the state’s marijuana industry, which set a record last year of $2.22 billion in sales.

Main Street of Downtown Morrison photographed ...
Main Street of downtown Morrison is pictured with with Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Several property owners around the Phillips 66 gas station at the Morrison exit off of C-470, which with its distinctive clocktower serves as Morrison’s unofficial entrance, want nothing to do with retail pot. And that has resulted in “literally nowhere for a dispensary to go” in Morrison, according to Truman Bradley, who heads up the Marijuana Industry Group.

Since Morrison launched a lottery for its one and only license on July 18, the town hasn’t received a single bid from the marijuana industry. That contrasts with the deluge of applications Broomfield received last year when it announced the awarding through a lottery of its three recreational cannabis licenses.

“If towns like Morrison want cannabis sales and tax revenue, they should legalize and regulate in a way where the town’s residents and businesses can be successful,” Bradley said. “Marijuana stores are like any other retail business — they need to be around other businesses.”

But Brewster Caesar, who has called Morrison home for a decade and a half, said he and his fellow residents “want to keep the town the way it is.” It’s challenging enough dealing with up to 9,000 people heading to Red Rocks nearly every night of the summer without putting a marijuana outlet where it will lure “more people to hang out in town stoned,” he said.

There are already traffic and parking challenges on Bear Creek Avenue, and Red Rocks Elementary School isn’t far away, Caesar said. The grandfather of four said he doesn’t want to see children in Morrison coming face to face with the industry.

“We are minuscule — we have only 120 houses,” he said.

But Caesar is no fool when it comes to the tax windfall that could come from weed sales in town. Last year, Colorado took in more than $423 million in tax and fee revenue from weed sales across the state. Morrison projects $185,000 in tax revenues a year from its one licensed store.

“There’s a fine line when you’re a small town — where do you get your revenues?” Caesar said.

Morrison has infrastructure and public safety needs — the town wants to hire another police officer and complete beautification projects in its business district — but doesn’t have tons of ways of generating cash.

Gill, the mayor pro tem, said there is no doubt that the nearly $200,000 a year a pot shop would generate in a town with an annual budget of less than $5 million, could be invaluable. But not at the expense of Morrison’s quality of life, she said.

The Cow an Eatery sign photographed ...
Sinage for parking and restaurants are pictured on Main Street of Downtown Morrison on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

That’s why, on Tuesday, the town council voted to suspend its marijuana licensing lottery and explore opening up a 1-acre parcel of town-owned land north of its wastewater treatment plant — on the east side of C-470 — as a possible location for its first and only marijuana dispensary.

Gill describes the process in which Morrison finds itself regarding its cannabis future a “work in progress.”

“It’s a roadblock,” she said. “Nothing is set in stone — one of these landowners could change their mind. Everything’s open, everything’s on the table, and we’ll see what conversations are brought to bear.”

Caesar actually voted in favor of the ballot measure legalizing marijuana sales in Morrison. But he remains firm that east of the hogback is the place for it. And that’s the message he takes from the electorate at large.

“There is a recognition that it was going to happen,” he said. “But we wanted to keep it out of the residential area, away from the school and away from the center of town.”


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