Residents of Michigan are set to vote whether to legalize recreational marijuana or not on the ballot for November 6. Those in favor of a legal industry want it to develop into an economic opportunity for rural folks in the state. However, in Colorado, which voted to allow pot for adult use a few years ago, legalization is proving a bit of a mixed bag for its rural areas.
On an isolated prairie in southern Colorado, growing inside a thriving greenhouse, are two acres of weed plants. Chief of business development at Strawberry Fields, Sam Toman points to several plants at one of the many growing facilities he supervises in lonely Pueblo County. “We are doing really well,” he says, admitting that, “We are in a tough market right now, but that will change. That is bound to happen.”
Over the last few years in Pueblo County, dozens of marijuana businesses have been sprouting all over. Strawberry Fields is but one of them. One state official likens the county to California’s Napa Valley, famous for its cannabis. The growth occurring in this mostly farming community is so robust that lawmakers are imposing a moratorium on issuing any new pot licenses.
Rural Effects of Legalization
As a case study, Colorado’s Pueblo County shows the impact of Marijuana legalization on rural areas. People no longer see Pueblo County the way they used to. Changing perceptions is just one aspect of this. For decades, the county defined itself as an agriculture hub, especially for green chilies, and its steel mills were famous nationwide. Now, it is near synonymous with marijuana.
Rod Slyhoff, Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce, says that pot businesses are becoming part of and integrating with the local community. He claims that a half-dozen of them even became Chamber of Commerce members. However, despite increasing employment levels and investment opportunities, Slyhoff makes it clear that problems abound.
For example, more people are failing work drug tests than they ever did. “Not that it was easy before the legalization,” Slyhoff admits, “but it seems like it is more prevalent now.” Additionally, many residents in Pueblo County are greatly unhappy with the changes legalization is bringing to their backyards and farms.
Back in 2016, some businesses and residents tried but failed, to repeal the county’s new laws allowing recreational sales and cultivation. Paula McPheeters was among those involved in the anti-weed campaign. She and her kids live in Pueblo County. McPheeters is also a member of SMART Colorado, a group campaigning to curb the state’s pot laws, with a particular focus on its influence on children.
According to McPheeters, the expanding weed industry is changing society around her, and not in a good way. “I never had an alarm system on my home,” she explained. “I have one now.” Property crimes have been rising alarmingly since legalization. Homelessness is also on the increase, as are some dangerous drugs, such as amphetamines and heroin.
In the first half of this year, sheriff’s deputies in Pueblo County busted over 40 cultivation facilities that were operating illegally. To understand better the impact that the retail pot industry is having on the community, officials commissioned Pueblo’s Institute of Cannabis Research at the Colorado State University to conduct a wide-ranging study.
This report found that, in 2016, the economic impact of the cannabis industry was $58 million. “Yes, it is employing people,” says Mike Wakefield, an economic strategist and professor at the Colorado State University. “But, that profit is being subsidized on the backs of taxpayers.” What he means is that much of the tax dollars generated by weed goes toward the county’s homelessness and crime issues.
According to the report, the social services and extra law enforcement required cost the community a whopping $23 million in 2016. Wakefield would very much like the statistics on homelessness and crime prior to legalization. Despite the gaps in data, the report concludes that, overall, legalization has advantaged Pueblo County more than not.
Back at Strawberry Fields, about half an hour south of Pueblo city, Sam Tomin believes that residents are slowly becoming more accepting of cannabis and are starting to see the positives of a regulated industry. “Yeah, the community has been really receptive,” he said. “There have been a lot of jobs created by the industry, and the stigma of, like, ‘This is drugs,’ ‘This is bad’ has kind of gone away.”
Using the experience of Colorado, rural voters in Michigan will need to head to the polls with clear minds. They must decide if the potential benefits, economically and otherwise, of legalizing recreational weed will outweigh any possible negatives. Would a regulated industry be worth the inevitable changes that might occur in rural communities? Only November 6 will tell what voters choose.