At least four city councilors will travel to Denver this month to learn about recreational marijuana facilities and oversight in Colorado, but Mayor Domenic J. Sarno said he will not invest taxpayer dollars in the fact-finding mission.
Councilor Justin Hurst, who requested city funds two weeks ago to help with the trip’s cost, said councilors will still go, leaving for the trip on June 27 and returning June 29. Hurst said he, Kateri Walsh, Adam Gomez and council President Orlando Ramos are the councilors planning to go so far.
Councilors said they plan to use personal or campaign funds for the cost of air travel and two nights hotel lodging.
Hurst, in addition to asking Sarno to approve travel and hotel costs for councilors, estimated at $1,200 per person, also asked if some city department officials could participate in the Denver trip.
There is a six-month moratorium on recreational marijuana sales in Springfield intended to give councilors and city officials time to draft and approve local regulations. Any zoning regulations need council approval. The moratorium was approved in March.
Hurst said the trip is planned with Denver officials and stakeholders “in hopes of learning firsthand from their successes as well as the challenges that they encountered when implementing recreational marijuana a few years ago.”
Sarno said he sees no justification for city funds to finance the Denver trip.
“Our City team is very satisfied that the state Cannabis Commission has done a good job laying out the regulations and procedures for the licensing process,” Sarno said in an email response to The Republican. “… Therefore, I do not believe that it is necessary or beneficial to spend taxpayer dollars on a trip to Colorado.”
His explanation also included that some representatives of INSA, which has opened medical marijuana facilities in Springfield and Easthampton, have “complete knowledge” regarding Colorado operations and shared those details with city department officials.
The Springfield dispensary opened May 25.
Councilors said the trip will be worth the cost, giving them direct details regarding how retail sales are going in Denver and the benefits and challenges faced in that city. There would be meetings with Denver officials and stakeholders and site visits to various marijuana facilities, Hurst said.
“Recreational marijuana is a fairly complex issue,” Ramos said. “We only have one chance to get this right — the first time. We owe it to our constituents and all residents of the city of Springfield to do as much research as possible and hopefully get it right the first time.”
The state began welcoming applications for recreational marijuana businesses in April, but applications are on hold in Springfield under the moratorium.
Hurst, in his initial letter to Sarno dated June 1, said the creation of regulations for recreational marijuana sales can be a “daunting task.”
“My concern is that if we don’t take advantage of the opportunity to visit a place that has already established a model, then we will be creating legislation in a vacuum and there is a high likelihood it will be flawed,” Hurst wrote.
Walsh and Gomez joined in praising the Denver trip.
“We need to gain as much information as possible to learn from their successes and mistakes to set the best policies and priorities for the citizens of Springfield,” Walsh said.
She said her questions include: what are the pros and cons; what are their drug messages to young kids; and are they doing research on long-term effects?
Gomez said that in his role as chairman of the council’s Economic Development Committee, it is important to visit communities that already have recreational marijuana retail stores.
“Learning the pros and cons will give us a better understanding of how to best serve our constituents and make sure we get it right the first time,” Gomez said. “We will inevitably encounter growing pains when implementing legislation of this magnitude, but we will be able to further educate ourselves on ways to avoid potential pitfalls around implementation with this visit.”
Hurst said he had not received a formal response from the mayor but was aware that he suggested that councilors wanting to go to Denver could use their own campaign funds.
The reality is that some councilors do not have adequate campaign funds, Hurst said.
Hurst had conferred in advance with Denver City Council President Albus Brooks and said Brooks was excited by the visit and assisted with preparations.
Hurst said he had hoped that representatives of certain city departments could join in the trip, including planning, health and human services, police and law departments.
“It is evident to those involved that creating regulations in an area that no one has any experience in can be a daunting task, which is why it makes even more sense for the individuals responsible for to be as informed as possible,” Hurst said.
In response to Sarno’s stance on not funding the trip with taxpayer dollars, Hurst said there are cities in Colorado that are similar in population to Springfield that are bringing in more than $10 million in tax revenues annually from marijuana.
“What it would cost to send 7 people to Denver for 3 days to learn ‘best practices’ pales in comparison to what the city stands to make,” Hurst said, in his letter to Sarno.