Denver & Colorado Springs: Big Questions On Ballot

Casting ballot vote Denver & Colorado Springs
Photo: Shutterstock

Denver and Colorado Springs face big marijuana questions on November ballot

This fall’s election promises to include several important issues, including a statewide initiative to decriminalize psychedelics, but there are a few interesting campaigns focused on Colorado’s other federally-banned plant.

Denver and Colorado Springs, the state’s two largest cities, will each consider separate marijuana initiatives that could heavily impact dispensaries, while one of Colorado’s more recognizable marijuana business owners is running for office.

Here’s the rundown on pot at the ballot box:

Denver’s proposed marijuana tax increase
Proposed by a group called My Spark Denver, this initiative proposes raising Denver recreational marijuana sales taxes by 4.5 percent in order to subsidize out-of-school learning. According to the group behind My Spark Denver, the tax increase and a 0.3 percent appropriation of the city’s current pot tax revenue would collect $22.5 million annually for the project. The fund would offer $1,000 stipends for Denver families to pay for learning enrichment programs.

The $1,000 stipends could be used for out-of-school programs that provide tutoring and “supplemental academic instruction” in educational areas, as well as sports activities, career training or mental health. Funds could also be used for educational materials and transportation required to participate in such programs.

Colorado voters rejected a proposal similar to My Spark Denver last November. Proposition 119 had asked for a 5 percent increase in marijuana sales taxes statewide to help fund a new out-of-school education program. Although that measure lost by an 8.5 percent margin across the state, it was more successful in Denver, where nearly 49 percent of voters approved the measure.

Prop 119’s funding eligibility qualifications for providers and the structure of its oversight board faced criticism from within the educational community in 2021. The My Spark Denver setup would be similar, with the program run by a nine-member board of directors. Denver’s mayor would appoint seven of those members; one would be a Denver City Council member and the ninth the superintendent of Denver Public Schools or an appointee chosen by the DPS superintendent.

Children would have to live in Denver and be eligible for public-school admission in order to qualify for funds, but the My Spark Denver language doesn’t specify whether a child would actually have to be enrolled in a public school.

Both Prop 119 and the My Spark Denver campaign are projects of Gary Community Ventures, which spent over $1 million to push Prop 119 and is responsible for all $270,000 of My Spark Denver’s contributions so far, according to the Denver Clerk’s Office.

Denver Public Schools declined to comment on the ballot initiative. The Colorado Education Association, a Colorado teachers’ union based in Denver with nearly 40,000 members, did not respond to requests for comment.

If approved, Denver’s overall sales tax on recreational marijuana would go from 26.41 percent to just under 31 percent.

Recreational sales in Colorado Springs
Colorado’s second-largest city has over 100 medical marijuana dispensaries, but not a single recreational store. The Colorado Springs City Council banned recreational marijuana sales in 2013, the year before recreational sales began in Colorado, and the local government — most notably Mayor John Suthers — has remained opposed to opening the market for the past decade.

If Your Choice Colorado Springs, the group behind the local campaign for recreational pot sales, is successful, though, retail marijuana won’t need city council or mayoral approval. The group’s initiative would allow currently operating medical marijuana dispensaries to transition to recreational sales. According to Your Choice, the local dispensary cap of 120 locations would remain, and new dispensaries could only open through acquisitions. No additional licenses would be issued, and licenses lost due to dormancy or revocation would not be replaced.

If approved, recreational pot sales would carry a 5 percent special sales tax to fund mental-health and public-safety programs, according to organizers. Your Choice Colorado Springs campaign organizer Anthony Carlson estimates that a local marijuana sales tax would raise about $15 million annually in Colorado Springs.

Colorado Springs voters approved recreational marijuana legalization in Colorado by just over 2 percent in 2012, while informal polling done by local news outlet KOAA in 2021 showed that a majority continues to support recreational dispensaries in Colorado Springs.

Dispensary owner aims for CU Board of Regents
While the University of Colorado Board of Regents race doesn’t directly impact Colorado’s marijuana landscape, it does play a part in how marijuana business owners are viewed in Colorado — and how the University of Colorado views marijuana. After winning a razor-thin primary race for the Democratic nomination in June, Wanda James is now the frontrunner for the District 1 seat on the University of Colorado Board of Regents.

The owner of Denver dispensary Simply Pure as well as a marijuana business consulting firm, James was one of the first licensed Black business owners in Colorado’s marijuana industry. She graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1986 before joining the United States Navy, and later on transitioned into entrepreneurship and politics. She managed a congressional campaign for Governor Jared Polis in 2006 before working on Barack Obama’s National Finance Committee in his run for president and has maintained an active role in state politics and social equity interests in Colorado’s marijuana industry.

James will now face Republican Amy Naes, who ran unopposed. They’ll be facing off in District 1, primarily located in Denver, where registered Democrat voters outnumber registered Republicans almost 4.5 to one, according to the Colorado Secretary of State.