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Saturday, December 15 , 2018, 6:38 pm | Fair 56º


Kimberly Hartke: Colorado City’s Experience Portends a Grim Future for Marijuana-Based Communities

With California poised to vote on the legalization of marijuana on Nov. 8, Pueblo, Colo., is a cautionary tale of what happens when local elected officials try to resolve their financial difficulties with tax revenue from the drug.

Kimberly Hartke Click to view larger
Kimberly Hartke

Located 115 miles due south of Denver, Pueblo is a former steel mill town that fell on hard times. The community of 120,000 residents ranks second in Colorado for poverty.

Seventy percent of Colorado’s 64 counties opted out of Amendment 64, the 2012 ballot initiative that commercialized and legalized marijuana. The City of Pueblo banned retail marijuana, but the County of Pueblo began to give licenses to marijuana grows and retail stores.

Pueblo County commissioners saw marijuana as an opportunity to fill empty factories and create jobs. They made the decision against the wishes of most of the county’s 160,000 residents.

An influx of 15,000 people moved to Pueblo for the drug, some looking for jobs in the industry.

Pueblo now has a tremendous homeless problem. Tent villages are housing newcomers who can’t afford or find homes. Social services, soup kitchens and emergency rooms are stressed to the breaking point.

So far in 2016, 5800 people have asked the local homeless center for assistance, a 49 percent increase since 2013. Approximately a third of county residents — 67,000 — are on Medicaid.

Concerned citizens started a campaign, Citizens for a Healthy Pueblo, to raise concerns about the social costs of public health, traffic safety, crime and teen drug use.

The campaign succeeded in getting two initiatives on the local Nov. 8 ballot — Propositions 200 and 300 — that will give citizens a voice on whether to allow the marijuana industry to continue to do business in the county. A “yes” vote on both initiatives will end Pueblo’s marijuana drug trade.

The medical community recently held a news conference to announce that 237 physicians had signed a statement supporting a “yes” vote on the two propositions. Physicians who spoke at the event detailed some of the health risks coming from marijuana use in the community.

Dr. Steven Simerville, a pediatrician and medical director of St. Mary-Corwin Medical Center, reported that 7 percent to 10 percent of babies born locally are testing positive for THC.

He highlighted the scientific findings that THC exposure is harmful to children’s brains. It affects the brain function in areas of spatial reasoning, IQ, learning and memory. It also can result in behavioral issues and poor decision-making skills.

Simerville cited a dramatic increase in attempted suicides — a fivefold jump since legalization. All but one individual who attempted suicide in the community tested positive for THC, he said.

Dr. Karen Randall, an emergency medicine doctor affiliated with several area hospitals, said many of Pueblo’s newcomers are coming to the emergency room with multiple and severe illnesses. Specifically, she said they are seeing increased incidences of diabetic ketoacidosis, hypertensive and psychiatric emergencies.

Randall believes the Pueblo community could be on the verge of a public health disaster. She explained that those living in tent camps are at risk for the same communicable diseases found in refugee camps: flu, pertussis, cholera and tuberculosis.

A former disaster coordinator at a large Detroit hospital, Randall says she fears Pueblo’s community health system is not equipped to deal with such an outbreak.

The black market is growing alongside the legal industry. The Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office has found that foreign cartels from Argentina, Cuba, Laos and Russia are now operating in Pueblo, buying or renting houses and setting up illegal grows.

Law enforcement has busted 60 illegal grows in 2016, with another 1,500 documented grows — that also are illegal.

Sheriff Kirk Taylor is retooling his tracking methods to account for the increasing crimes associated with marijuana. Pueblo now has the highest murder rate in Colorado, at 11.1 per 100,000.

“Those living in the rural areas are scared,” reported Paula McPheeters of Citizens for a Healthy Pueblo. “The marijuana grows are despoiling the land and draining the water aquifers. Squatters are growing marijuana and crime is increasing.”

McPheeters says the community is being overwhelmed by outsiders moving in and taking over. Gang activity is increasing, drive-by shootings, petty crime and auto theft are now big problems in a once peaceful community.

“Pueblo County now has 20 retail marijuana stores, compared to our 18 McDonalds, Starbucks and Walmart stores combined,” she said.

The county took in $3.5 million in tax revenue from the marijuana industry, but McPheeters cautioned, “The social costs to the community could easily be upward of two times that amount.”

The biggest concern to those seeking to pass the ballot initiatives is the increase in youth drug use. Officials estimate that 31 percent of youth age 12-17 are using marijuana in Pueblo County, three times the national average.

Tragically, 12 percent have tried methamphetamine or heroin. The community has inadequate drug treatment facilities, so when teens get into trouble with addiction, it is difficult to get them help.

Aubree Adams’ eighth-grade son started using infused marijuana products

“Soon after legalization became law, the schools were flooded with marijuana-laced candy and sodas that were indistinguishable from regular sweets and sodas,” she explained. “Our son was in and out of hospitals for marijuana-induced psychosis, suicide attempts.”

The family sought help locally for his addiction, and tried a number of different programs to no avail. She finally found help from MomsStrong.org, which was founded by other mothers who lost their children to marijuana addiction or suicide.

Today, Adams’ 16-year-old son must live out of state to get away from the marijuana culture and to participate in an effective treatment program. He is living with a host family and plans to go to a special high school with others recovering from drugs.

Adams, who volunteers for Citizens for a Healthy Pueblo, says she has been harassed, bullied and physically threatened by the local marijuana dealers for her activism in favor of the ballot initiatives.

Kimberly Hartke represents Parents Opposed to Pot, a nonprofit organization committed to educating parents and other citizens about the dangers of marijuana. The opinions expressed are her own.

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