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Kara MasonKara MasonFebruary 6, 20182min602

The nation’s first pot scholarship program is making college possible for even more students in Pueblo this year; 600, to be exact.

Pueblo County commissioners announced Monday they would likely award more than 180 more awards to college-bound seniors in Pueblo than what was awarded last year. This year nearly $750,000 is available for scholarships. Last year, the county awarded $420,000 to students; county officials said that amount was just coincidentally similar to the 4/20 reference.

In recent years between 300 and 400 students graduate from Pueblo high schools. Every high school senior in the county is automatically eligible, but the scholarship that comes from the recreational marijuana revenue is only awarded to Pueblo high school graduates who plan to attend college at CSU-Pueblo or Pueblo Community College.

“Even if you’re not sure if you’re eligible, you should apply. We have $75,000 available for students who may not fall into the Pueblo County Scholarship’s defined criteria,” Pueblo Hispanic Education Foundation Executive Director Beverly Duran said in a statement.

Pueblo County voters decided in 2015 to allocate 50 percent of the marijuana excise tax collected in Pueblo County to the scholarship fund. The remainder of that money goes to a list of community projects, such as trails and parks.

As the excise tax grows the amount of money available for scholarships is expected to, too. And that could mean the difference in going to college for some Pueblo students.

“It is so critically important to make college affordable for our youth if we want to provide long-term economic opportunity to our community,” Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace said of the program last year. “Too many kids can’t afford to go to college, with this program we are taking cannabis-tax revenue and using it to provide for a brighter future in Pueblo.”


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Kara MasonKara MasonFebruary 1, 20184min745

If Attorney General Jeff Sessions opened up the Washington Times Wednesday he was bound to see a message from several Colorado leaders, and elected officials from across the country, on cannabis policy.

A new coalition, headed by Pueblo County Commissioner and former state legislator Sal Pace, took out a full page ad in the Washington Times for a letter outlining the confusion that has ensued since Sessions announced the Jan. 4 decision to rescind of the Cole Memo, which kept federal authorities at bay in states that have legalized recreational marijuana.

“Your decision also created uncertainty for our local governments by leaving federal enforcement decisions up to each individual U.S. attorney, resulting in what could be selective and unfair enforcement. Of greatest concern, however, is the sheer confusion felt by local officials who now face governing in a chaotic environment,” the letter said.

“While it may have been the intention to spark uncertainty for legal cannabis license holders across the nation, it also created significant confusion for local governments in thirty-one states and territories where they have comprehensive programs regulating the licensing, land-use, enforcement, and taxation of this industry.”

The group, called Leaders for Reform, also requested that a bipartisan and bicameral task force be created to “explore aligning federal and state cannabis laws.”

“While this task force is convening, we would request that the Department of Justice not initiate new enforcement actions in situations where operators are following state and local regulations. This would provide certainty to the basic operations of local governments across the country,” the letter said.

In case Sessions didn’t happen to pick up a copy of the Washington Times, the group also mailed him a copy of the letter, which included nearly 100 signatures from elected officials from 11 states.

On a call announcing the letter Wednesday, Pace said the task force would “allow for a healthy dialogue on how to address discrepancies (in state and federal law) and allow for greater direction for state and local communities on how to best move forward.”

Beyond the legal enforcement aspect, some pointed out how the Cole Memo was useful in other instances too, such as water. Mark Carmel, a board director for the Pueblo West Metropolitan District, said there’s confusion on using federal water for marijuana now. The Cole Memo said it couldn’t be done. But now?

Pace said that could potentially be a topic the suggested task force could address.

And while rescinding the Obama-era memo has created unclarity for governing bodies, it’s unclear whether that confusion has translated to the market.

“I’ve heard anecdotally that investing has gone down and private investors have pulled out of deals in Colorado,” Pace said, adding that there hasn’t been an increase in sales or economic activity following the move by Sessions either.

“People are going to be using without regulations. It makes more sense to have regulated, licensed and taxed cannabis than to have it on the black market,” he said. “If there are fewer investments in emerging markets, that means less there’s less safety and assurances in public safety.”


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Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirNovember 16, 20173min837

A lot of the workaday tax credits and deductions that businesses routinely use to trim Uncle Sam’s take are still off-limits to Colorado’s legal marijuana enterprises. That would change under legislation Colorado Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner signed onto this week as a co-sponsor.

As noted in a press release from Gardner’s office, the legislation, introduced by Sens. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, would “ensure marijuana businesses legally operating in Colorado and other states that have legalized the sale of marijuana are able to utilize common business tax deductions and credits, such as those for normal business expenses or for hiring veterans.”

The legislation underscores the continued rift over legal marijuana between the Trump administration and states like Colorado, and it highlights once again the irony of conservative Republicans like Gardner moving to shore up states’ rights on the matter in the face of opposition from conservative Republican U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Despite the administration push-back, Gardner, quoted in the announcement by his office, comes across as an unflinching champion of free-market marijuana who might as well be saying, “Jeff who?”

“Our current tax code puts thousands of legal marijuana businesses throughout Colorado at a disadvantage by treating them differently than other businesses across the state … Coloradans made their voices heard in 2012 when they legalized marijuana and it’s time for the federal government to allow Colorado businesses to compete. This commonsense, bipartisan bill will allow small businesses in Colorado and other states that have legal marijuana businesses to grow their operations, create jobs, and boost the economy.”

The press release also notes bipartisan accolades for Gardner’s embrace of the legislation:

“I commend Senator Gardner for fighting for Colorado’s small businesses,” said Sal Pace, former Democratic Leader in the Colorado State House and sitting Pueblo County Commissioner. “By sponsoring S.777, Senator Gardner is saying that he wants to put millions of dollars back into Colorado’s economy. This is a watershed moment. We don’t hear of a lot of bipartisanship these days. But, this Democrat wants to publicly thank Senator Gardner for his leadership.”


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Kara MasonKara MasonSeptember 15, 20172min635

Former Colorado State Fair manager Chris Wiseman is jumping into Pueblo politics.

The 12-year fair veteran isn’t new to the Colorado politics limelight. Being at the helm of the state fair has meant years of enduring pointed questions and political pandering over the event’s fate in calling Pueblo home.

Before the fair, Wiseman, a Democrat, worked for former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer and Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Wirth. Since his time at the state fair, Wiseman has worked with the Colorado Department of Agriculture as a deputy commissioner but recently announced via a Facebook post he’d turned in a letter of resignation with the intent to run for Pueblo County Commissioner.

The Pueblo Chieftain first reported on Wiseman’s bid, which may be centered on the future of hemp and cannabis:

“Wiseman said as commissioner he wants to see what he could do to expand markets for hemp as he has been doing at the department of ag.”

That position already has been met with opposition by a group of vocal, yet mostly informal, marijuana industry critics. A Facebook page titled, “Parents against the normalization of dope,” which mostly comments on Pueblo-related marijuana news, posted that it “wasn’t surprised” by the “drug person’s” bid.

The commissioner seat is being vacated by Sal Pace, a former state House minority leader, who announced earlier this year that he wouldn’t run for re-election because he wants to spend more time with his family. Pace was first elected as county commissioner in 2013.


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Joey BunchJoey BunchSeptember 4, 20176min781

A state commission has begun exploring ways to realize Colorado transportation officials’ vision of passenger rail service that stretches up and down the Front Range.

The commission, which includes government representatives from Denver to Trinidad, has until Dec. 1 to submit to the legislature a plan detailing steps forward and funding options. The ultimate hope is a commuter rail that runs from Fort Collins to Pueblo, which probably would cost between $5 billion and $15 billion, said David Krutsinger, deputy director of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s transit and rail program.

The group is also has a more immediate objective: rerouting Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line, which runs through the southeastern corner of the state, to include stops in Pueblo and Walsenburg. Officials say the route could be done in less than five years.

As politicians scrounge for funds to repair Colorado’s ailing highways and leaders in the Pikes Peak region search for the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to widen Interstate 25 between Monument and Castle Rock, members of the commission see an opportunity to press a transportation solution that can sustain Colorado’s exploding population.

“The single-occupancy vehicle is just not going to be the best solution for the future of transportation in Colorado,” said commission member Jill Gaebler, who also is president pro tem of the Colorado Springs City Council. “We need to be thinking bigger and more long term.”

The commission will meet for the second time this week, and its 13 members plan to convene at least once a month, she said.

The commission, renamed and repurposed with a measure that was signed into a law by Gov. John Hickenlooper in May, was created in 2014 to devise a plan to rehabilitate more than 100 miles of track on Amtrak’s Chicago-to-Los Angeles line, which has stops in Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad, and consider options for the Chief’s expansion.

Senate Bill 153 tasked commissioners are now being asked to come up with sources for the millions of dollars needed to rehabilitate about 50 miles of remaining dilapidated track. Once fully completed, the improvements are expected to save trains up to two hours on each trip, with the two proposed stops tacking on an hour or less in travel time and the Pueblo station adding an estimated 14,000 more trips each year, according to CDOT.

The commission is unsure exactly how much the extension would cost, although Pueblo voters have already elected to set aside some money for it, said Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, the group’s interim chairman.

County voters approved in November a ballot question that would allow the county to spend excess revenues that would otherwise be returned to taxpayers under the provisions of Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, to fund a list of projects including the reroute. However, the amount of money each project will be allocated has yet to be finalized, Pace said.

The cost of extending the line will be relatively low, Pace said, because existing freight railways would be used, but there are still some remaining engineering challenges, including logistical negotiations with railroad lines and considerations related to platform construction and tracking of the trains.

“We see the Chief (reroute) as an incremental step,” he said. “The big prize is connecting the Front Range of Colorado via passenger rail.”

The price tag of a 180-mile commuter rail would vary, with a less-expensive line traveling at lower speeds on the existing freight train corridor, and a pricier line traveling up to 180 mph just east of I-25, Krutsinger said. But the state doesn’t currently have the money for either option. Paying for the massive undertaking probably would require voters to approve new taxes or an increase in the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since the early 1990s, he said.

Plus, there are political hurdles to creating a railway that crosses jurisdictional lines – such as where the stops should be located and how already-crowded city centers would make room for them. But Krutsinger said a commuter rail is essential if Colorado wants to keep up with other growing population centers in North America, such as Boston and Salt Lake City. The Front Range’s population, now more than 4 million, is expected to increase to upward of 6 million by 2040, he said.

“You look at cities with 6 million people, and they almost without exception have rail networks for their population. If we’re going to stay competitive, Colorado is going to need to do it.”


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Kara MasonKara MasonJuly 12, 20174min468

After a ballot question threatened to rid Pueblo County of its marijuana industry in November, the debate continues over whether pot has been good for the community.

That debate isn’t confined to Pueblo, or even the state, but reaches as far as Vermont, where Gov. Phil Scott vetoed a bill earlier this year that would have legalized marijuana in that state.

A Pueblo doctor and Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace both penned guest columns on a Vermont news website portraying very different outcomes of the recreational marijuana industry in Pueblo.

Dr. Karen Randall, an emergency room doctor in Pueblo, warned that the promise of pot didn’t exactly deliver in Pueblo.

Randall claims in her guest column that Pueblo’s homeless population has tripled, emergency room visits related to marijuana are up, and the promise of good jobs? Well, Randall says that didn’t happen, either.

“Every employee that I have seen that identifies themselves as a marijuana industry employee has been on Medicaid,” she writes.

“So, does it really benefit a community to provide more extremely low-income jobs to an area? I am sure there are a very limited number of people who are profiting excessively from the marijuana industry, but the majority of workers are not making enough money that they can live and thrive without government assistance (Medicaid, food stamps, etc).”

Days later Commissioner Pace replied to the 12-point letter saying he was “shocked” to see the commentary.

And to Randall’s argument that marijuana has devastated the local economy? Pace, a former state representative, said economic troubles were in full swing well before Amendment 64.

Pueblo County has historically been poorer than the rest of the state. We’ve faced rampant unemployment since the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company shut its steel factory doors in the 1980s. Before legalization of marijuana, our unemployment rate was mired above 12 percent. Today, we sit at 3.2 percent unemployment and we have more Puebloans employed than ever in our history. The construction market is booming because 50 percent of all construction projects are directly attributed to cannabis projects. We’ve seen well over $100 million in outside capital investment into our economy, and we are exporting $50 million annually of marijuana products to communities mostly around the Denver metro area of the state.

So why was a doctor writing to an audience in Vermont, anyway?

Pace wrote that he didn’t know, but he alluded to one suspicion: “The pharmaceutical industry is scared of legalized marijuana. Marijuana is a threat to opioid manufacturers and those who benefit from prescribing them.”



Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirJune 9, 20174min229

Marijuana has won its place at the table across much of Colorado since legalization by the state’s voters in 2012, but that’s nothing compared to the weed’s status in Pueblo. There, it has moved to the head of the table.

We’ve noted before how cannabis production and sales in Colorado’s onetime “Steel City” has been embraced as in few other places. The Pueblo area boasts one of the largest outdoor marijuana grows in the country and a proliferating retail trade in recreational marijuana. A planned National Marijuana Museum was announced last November and has begun a fund-raising campaign. And Colorado State University-Pueblo’s year-old Institute of Cannabis Research recently hosted its first conference, attended by internationally prominent experts from the United States and eight other countries.

All of which came to mind this week when Pueblo County Commissioner (and former state House Minority Leader) Sal Pace publicly lashed out at the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against a marijuana grow in the nearby town of Rye.

It’s not just any old lawsuit but in fact one filed under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — RICO, as it’s more commonly known — a legal tool typically reserved for use by the feds against mobsters. In this case, however, the litigation was filed in 2015 by Safe Streets Alliance, a national group that supports drug prohibition, as well as the owners of the property adjacent to the grow site, according to the Pueblo Chieftain.

The property owners’ claim, that their property’s value has been diminished by the pot grow, got another chance to pursue their case this week when the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court ruled  that a lower court had erred by dismissing the lawsuit last year. The legal premise asserted in the suit is that federal law pre-empts Colorado law on drug policy.

Pace was having none of it. Noting Pueblo County already has spent $100,000 helping fight the suit for the past two years, he told the Chieftain:

“I think it is a last-ditch effort by some prohibitionists who are losing in the court of public opinion. They are losing state by state at the ballot box, and so they are trying to use obscure federal legislation to try to shut down the will of the voters for a very small, minute, right wing agenda.”

But it was this telling remark by Pace that truly underscored just how far marijuana has come:

“Pueblo County and Colorado has been a model not only for the rest of the country, but for the rest of the world (in the marijuana industry). This should be celebrated as an example of something that we are all proud of well creating a lot of jobs and a lot of tax revenue. Not something that people with a narrow social agenda want to push for their own interests.”

 



Jared WrightJared WrightJuly 26, 201642min360

DENVER — Well, none of us can say we didn't see the rough and tumble conventions for both parties coming from miles away right? Happy Day # 2 of the Democratic National Convention ... and All or Nothing Day (more encouragement for the Bernie Sanders supporters). This morning Hillary Clinton's campaign manager Robby Mook told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that he didn't believe the stolen DNC emails were a "coincidence." "All I know is what the experts and the reporters are telling us, what they're saying is it was likely Russian actors. I think the timing around our convention was not a coincidence." So everyones' suspicions are confirmed. Trump connection, though? "Absurd" says his campaign. But the email hacking caused somewhat of a total upheaval on Convention Day 1, and a subsequent bowing out of Debbie Wasserman Schultz from her place in the chair of the convention yesterday — the festivities were instead gaveled in by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Meanwhile, leaders in the Colorado for Bernie Sanders movement are calling for party unity and (at least eventual) support for Clinton. But it wasn't all butterflies and cordiality.