CO: Fort Collins Marijuana Shops Find Unlikely Advocate In Former Foe

Photo Credit: Austin Humphreys

Seven years ago, it would have been unfathomable that Steve Ackerman would be the board president of Fort Collins’ largest substance abuse awareness group.

The owner of Fort Collins marijuana dispensary Organic Alternatives once pitched the idea of Team Fort Collins — now named Team Wellness & Prevention — joining forces with the city’s dispensaries to promote responsible business practices.

It was 2011, and medical marijuana had been legal in Colorado for about a decade.

“The polite response was, ‘We cannot and will not work with you,’” Ackerman said.

Later in 2011, Team Fort Collins led a successful ballot initiative that banned marijuana retailers from operating in the city. Ackerman and the other Fort Collins medical marijuana dispensaries of the time were forced to close shop and destroy their remaining inventory in 2012.

Organic Alternatives was the designated caregiver for about 300 state-registered medical marijuana patients when Ackerman had to shut its doors, according to Coloradoan archives.

But the change was short-lived. In 2012, voters overturned the ban and medical marijuana eventually returned to Fort Collins. In November 2012, Colorado voters legalized recreational marijuana use and sales, setting the stage for a 4-3 Fort Collins City Council vote to allow recreational sales within city limits in March 2014.

By 2017, recreational marijuana had grown to a $50 million industry in Fort Collins.

The reality of legal marijuana’s rise forced Team Wellness & Prevention to change its approach to the industry.

“If you work with the industry, you get more compliance than when you don’t,” said Gordon Coombes, the organization’s executive director.

Changing attitudes

When the debate over marijuana legalization was raging in Colorado, National Geographic sent cameras to Fort Collins.

Then-Team Fort Collins executive director Scoot Crandall was profiled as an opponent of legal marijuana in a 10-part TV series called “American Weed.” The first episode showed him debating Ackerman at a city council meeting.

“We are becoming the pot capital of Northern Colorado,” Crandall argued. “A lot of people in this town are really angry about dispensaries.”

Team Wellness, which has spent decades fighting youth substance abuse in Larimer County, long argued that marijuana legalization would lead to more youth usage. However, the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports Colorado youth marijuana usage has dropped below pre-legalization rates — falling from 11.16 percent in 2012-13 to 9.08 percent in 2015-16.

“The old days of D.A.R.E are long gone,” Coombes said. “We now focus on positive youth development and teaching how to emotionally regulate.”

What was once a tale of conflict is now one of collaboration between marijuana retailers, Team Wellness and local law enforcement, with seven of 10 dispensaries in Fort Collins listed as active members of Team Wellness’ responsible cannabis retailers chapter.

“This is an important organization that is now focused on education instead of politics,” Ackerman said.

The shift toward collaboration hasn’t been easy, though. Team Wellness has lost private funding for working with cannabis businesses, but Coombes said the organization remains dedicated to changing perceptions about the growing industry.

That’s a message Coombes, a former undercover investigator on Larimer County’s drug task force, shares at national substance abuse conferences and when hired to speak on the topic in other states.

“If you ever go sit in a waiting room of a dispensary, you will find a scope of different people from every walk of life,” he said. “You also learn how dedicated the retailers are to doing the right thing.”

In the marijuana industry, much like at a liquor store or bar, that means only selling to those of a legal age and following guidelines for legal sales. You have to be 21 years old to purchase marijuana in Colorado, and a retailer is required to check your identification twice — when you walk in and when you make a purchase.

That’s why many dispensaries offer monetary incentives to employees who spot minors attempting to buy marijuana.

Employees have another incentive to follow laws properly — if a violation occurs, they’re held individually accountable in addition to the business being punished.

Monthly responsible cannabis retailers meetings frequently focus on tactics for spotting fake IDs.

Meetings also cover hot topics and the changing legal landscape within the industry, with Fort Collins Police Services’ Jim Lenderts occasionally on hand to clarify any questions retailers have.

Upcoming conversations will likely include U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent decision to rescind the 2013 Cole Memo that directed federal efforts for policing legal marijuana.

Though Colorado and other states have approved legal marijuana, federal laws still classify marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, the same as heroin, LSD and ecstasy.

Lenderts told the Coloradoan he doesn’t plan to change his approach to policing the more than 40 licensed marijuana businesses he oversees.

“We will continue to enforce state and local regulations for marijuana stores and unlicensed cultivations,” he said. “We have always maintained a partnership with federal agencies and will continue to assist them when asked.”

Keeping businesses accountable

Much like Team Wellness, Fort Collins Police Services has adapted to the legalization of a substance once illegal to possess. Lenderts, a former homicide investigator, was hired as Fort Collins’ one-man Marijuana Enforcement Division in November 2015.

He now oversees 44 licensed marijuana businesses in Fort Collins, including dispensaries, grow operations, marijuana product manufacturers and testing facilities, with six more pending his final license approval before they can open.

“I’m not pro or negative marijuana,” Lenderts said. “But our job is to follow amendments and maintain quality of life in our city. I think we balance those things.”

He’s a regular inside dispensaries and frequently dumpster dives at businesses to make sure marijuana products are disposed of correctly.

Last year, Lenderts issued three marijuana code violations to licensed operations.

“We are not out to get marijuana people,” Lenderts said. “I would rather teach people the right way to follow the rules.”

Beyond holding businesses accountable, Lenderts also addresses marijuana-related complaints in Fort Collins. Last year, he responded to about 100 complaints in the city, most of which were related to marijuana odor coming from home grows.

As other states have followed Colorado and legalized marijuana, many law enforcement from across the country have consulted Lenderts for guidance.

“Being one of the first in the country, we are really laying the groundwork,” Lenderts said. “We are the test ground and we can’t have shenanigans.”

Marijuana retailers in Fort Collins

The following businesses sell marijuana in Fort Collins. Establishments marked with ** are technically outside of Fort Collins city limits but have Fort Collins addresses.

•Ace’s Place, 1101 Academy Court

•Choice Organics, 813 Smithfield Drive

•Elite Organics, 604 S. College Ave.**

•Flower Power Botanicals, 1308 Duff Drive**

•The Green Solution, 810 N. College Ave.

•Infinite Wellness Center, 900 N. College Ave.

•Kind Care of Colorado, 6617 S. College Ave.

•Natural Alternatives for Health, 6712 S. College Ave.

•Organic Alternatives, 346 E. Mountain Ave.

•Smokey’s, 5740 S. College Ave.

•Solace Meds, 301 Smokey St.

•Verts, 1240 W. Elizabeth St.