Pubdate: Sat, 25 Sep 2010
Source: Gazette, The (Colorado Springs, CO)
Copyright: 2010 The Gazette
Author: Dave Philipps


RAMAH - For more than 100 years, the only weed that posed an issue to
this town was tumbleweed. But the sudden growth of medical marijuana
has changed that.

Ramah is the smallest town in El Paso County. The tidy clutch of
houses anchored in the windswept prairie by mature, shady cottonwoods
is home to between 119 and 125 people, depending whom you ask. There
are no cafes or gas stations. There are no businesses at all.

Except, potentially, one.

A resident went to a Ramah town board meeting last fall saying he
wanted to lease the old general store down by the Rock Island railroad
tracks to a marijuana grower from Denver. The five board members were
uncertain what to do, so they decided to ask the town.

In November's election, voters will decide whether the town should
allow the growing, refining and selling of medical marijuana.

"It is true, small-town democracy," said the mayor, Turner Smith. "We
will let the people have their say."

This fall, towns large and small across the state, from Alamosa to
Yampa, are deciding whether to go green or nip the burgeoning medical
marijuana business in the bud.

When Colorado voters decided to amend the state constitution in 2000
to allow medical marijuana, the practice remained largely underground
for years. Then, in 2009, after federal authorities signalled that
enforcing federal marijuana laws was no longer a priority, hundreds of
dispensaries sprung up across the state and the number of patients
seeking marijuana exploded. The number of people on the state registry
is currently estimated at 114,000, up from 41,000 a year ago. In
response, state lawmakers passed two laws this spring that attempt to
regulate medical marijuana. One provision allows counties, cities and
towns to impose a local ban, or allow voters to do so.

(Click here to see The Gazette's online voter guide).

Town leaders in neighboring Calhan, Simla and Kiowa have all already
outlawed dispensaries and grow operations. Other prairie towns,
including Swink and La Junta, have decided to put the question to a
vote of the people.

Ramah may seem an unlikely spot for a dispensary.

A century ago it was whistle stop on the Rock Island Railroad where
farmers and ranchers could come for supplies. The town boasted a dance
hall, a creamery, a cafe, a handsome brick school, two churches and at
least one general store. The population peaked 186 in 1940. Then, the
railroad and farming went into steep declines.

Today, the dance hall is closed. Golden buffalo grass grows knee-deep
in the baseball diamond next to the boarded-up schoolhouse. One of the
churches ran so short on congregants that it is now a house. The other
is owned by the city, which uses the basement as city hall.

"I like to say we have clear separation of church and state. It is
called the floor." said Keith McCafferty, a retired highway worker and
Ramah's mayor pro tem on a recent tour of the town.

Empty buildings list in disrepair along the main street. A number of
houses in town have been for sale for over a year, despite prices far
lower than other communities. The only thing that seems to be growing
in Ramah is the feral herd of rusty, broken-down cars that nose out
into grassy alleys.

"Those cars and other code enforcement issues are about the only
problems we ever have in Ramah," McCafferty said. "There is no crime."

That is why, he said, he hesitates to let a marijuana grow facility
open in town. It is not that he thinks the drug is so bad, but the
town is too small to have its own police force, so it relies on the El
Paso County Sheriff's Office. "Sometimes it is 30 minutes to an hour
before they show up. I just don't think we can offer a grow facility
the security," he said.

McCafferty's neighbor, Annette Manchego, is more blunt.

"I think it is disgusting and should be banned," said Manchego, who
moved to Ramah from Colorado Springs in 1967.

She loves Ramah's quiet, small-town charm where neighbors stop to talk
in the middle of the street and few people lock their doors. She fears
medical marijuana could attract a bad element.

"A lot of these people cheated their way into prescriptions," she
said. "I don't like it. If I was allowed I'd vote twice against it."

Ramah's off-year elections draw about 40 voters, which means the
marijuana question could easily be decided by one or two ballots.

Patrick McCarthy is the guy who owns the old general store and started
all the hubbub.

He was living in a high-rise in Denver when he spotted the handsome,
century-old brick building, plus a house and two smaller buildings for
sale on Craigslist. He had grown up in a small town in Maine and part
of him craved that life again. He bought the buildings for $90,000 in
2006, according to county records, and has spent the intervening years
fixing the property. He moved into the house in 2009.

"The roof of the store was shot. It had been raining in there for
years," he said. "I fixed it up. Then I redid the electrical. Then I
ran out of money."

Right around that time, acquaintances from Denver asked if they could
rent the store to grow marijuana for their dispensary.

"I have no real personal interest in it one way or another," he said.
"I just wanted to make some money."

He went to the town board. By coincidence, it was on the very day they
were discussing a ban. In light of his plans, they decided to put the
question on the ballot.

McCarthy sees medical marijuana as a win, win.

In addition to generating money to restore his property, a grow
facility and dispensary would give the registered medical marijuana
users in town (he says there are four), and the uncounted others in
surrounding towns where dispensaries are banned, a convenient place to
buy their marijuana.

A dispensary also has the potential to generate much-needed revenue
for the town.

Ramah currently has no sales tax because it has no businesses. It
keeps up town infrastructure with water and sewer fees and grants.
McCarthy said a five percent tax on a small, dispensary could
potentially raise $18,000 per year from marijuana sales, or about
one-third of the town's budget.

"I understand people's security concerns," he said. "But in a small
town like Ramah, with no police, everybody watches everyone coming and
going. It would be very hard to rob the place."

He plans to print fliers that lay out his argument and deliver them to
every resident but does not want this to become a divisive issue, he
said by phone from Denver, where he works. "Hey, whatever happens,
happens. I just think it is cool that the town gets to decide," he

Locals say that so far public opinion has been hard to gauge. The
mayor and town clerk both said they had no idea which way the vote
would go.

McCarthy does not either. He has talked to 20 town residents who are
in favor of a local dispensary, but said many in the older generation
are not.

Dianne Sharp, who runs the post office, sees almost everyone on a
daily basis when they come to get their mail, but even she said it is
tough to say.

"I've heard mostly negative comments," she said. "But the people who
are for it probably keep to themselves."

Many think the outcome of the election won't be clear until every
ballot is counted on Nov. 2.

In a town as small as Ramah, that won't take too long.
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