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Recreational marijuana may mean changes for rural communities in Michigan

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

In November, Michigan voters will decide if they want to legalize recreational marijuana.

Supporters say the industry that develops should be an economic boost for rural Michigan.

But legalization has been a mixed bag for rural parts of Colorado.

On a lonely prairie in southern Colorado, two acres of marijuana plants grow inside a pristine greenhouse.

Sam Toman, chief of business development for Strawberry Fields, points to a row of marijuana plants at one of the cultivation facilities he oversees in rural Pueblo County.

“We’re doing really well,” says Toman, though he admits: “We’re in a rough market right now. But that will change. That is bound to happen.”

Strawberry Fields is just one of dozens of cannabis businesses that have taken root in Pueblo County in recent years. 

One local official likes to call the county the Napa Valley of Colorado’s pot industry. 

The growth in this largely rural community has been so robust that local officials have imposed a moratorium on new licenses.  

The growing marijuana industry is changing people’s perception of Pueblo County. For many years, steel mills and agriculture – in particular green chiles – defined the county. But now the county is becoming synonymous with cannabis. 

Rod Slyhoff is the CEO of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce.

Slyhoff says cannabis businesses are becoming a part of the local community. He says a half-dozen have even become members of the chamber of commerce. 

However, despite rising business investment and jobs, Slyhoff says there are problems.

For example, he says people are more frequently failing local employers' drug tests.

“Not that it was easy before the legalization,” Slyhoff concedes, “but it seems like it’s more prevalent now.”

And there are many Pueblo County residents who are not thrilled with the cannabis industry. In 2016, some residents and businesses tried, and failed, to repeal the county’s ordinances permitting recreational marijuana cultivation and retail sales.

Paula McPheeters was part of the anti-marijuana ballot campaign. She lives in Pueblo with her young children. She’s a member of the group SMART Colorado, which campaigns to rein in the state’s marijuana laws, focusing particularly on the potential effect on children.    

McPheeters says the growing cannabis industry is changing her community, and not for the better.

“I never had an alarm system on my home. I have one now,” says McPheeters.

Since legalization, the county has seen an increase in property crime and homelessness. There has also been an increase in seizures of drugs like heroin and Amphetamines. Andin the first six months of this year, Pueblo County sheriff’s deputies busted more than 40 illegal grow operations.

To get better handle on how the retail marijuana industry was affecting the community, officials commissioned a wide-ranging study by the Colorado State University at Pueblo’s Institute of Cannabis Research.

The report found in 2016 the marijuana industry generated an economic impact of $58 million. 

“Yes, it is employing people. There are business owners that are taking profit,” says CSU-Pueblo Prof. Mike Wakefield, an economic strategist. “But … that profit is being subsidized on the backs of taxpayers.”

By that, Wakefield means many of the tax dollars raised by the marijuana industry are being spent dealing with the county’s rising crime and homeless problem.  According to the report, the community spent a $23 million in 2016 on additional law enforcement and social service costs.   

Wakefield admits he would like to have better data on crime and homelessness from before legalization.

Still, the report concludes legalizing recreational marijuana has been a net gain for Pueblo County. 

Back at the greenhouse about 30 minutes south of the city of Pueblo, Strawberry Fields’ Sam Tomin believes people in Pueblo County are becoming more accepting of the marijuana industry and see it as a positive.

“Yeah, the community’s been really receptive. There’s been a lot of jobs created by the industry,” says Toman. “And the stigma of, like, ‘This is drugs,’ ‘This is bad' has kind of gone away.”

November 6, rural voters in Michigan will decide if the potential economic benefits from embracing recreational marijuana will be worth whatever changes their communities might see. 

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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