Nov. 18 was a fine day for the citizens of Edgewater, Colorado, a city of about 5,200 people immediately to the west of Denver.
It was the day, the Denver Post wrote, that Edgewater “forged a new civic identity,” with marijuana paying the bill. Through much of the United States, all kinds of municipalities — small like Edgewater, much larger like bedroom communities for Chicago commuters — are struggling to maintain basic services like a solvent police force, paved streets, libraries, or animal care and control services. Even the simplest of civilized touches like public gardening are at risk.
Edgewater does not have these problems, because Edgewater has a marijuana industry.
Edgewater’s experience with marijuana legalization has been almost Biblical, in that legal cannabis has showered upon the town a flood of money, manna which the town has used to pave its roads, pay its police and build sparkling new public buildings that other cities of much larger size are closing.
Compare Edgewater’s approach to that pursued by numerous other cities and towns in California, Michigan, Massachusetts, and elsewhere, which reacted to the prospect of legal and regulated sales within their city limits by passing bans, and one might begin to question the wisdom of the prohibition mindset.
But if other cities were seeking to copy Edgewater’s model, and pay for libraries, new roads, and (without irony) a better-funded police force, their window to do so may be limited.
The city sports six commercial storefronts selling cannabis. Local taxes on marijuana sales has gifted $3 million to Edgewater’s municipal budget — cash the city spent to repave its streets and used towards a new $13 million civic center, the point of municipal pride that opened Nov. 18.
“It gives us a civic identity that we’ve pretty much lacked for the last 50 years,” city manager HJ Stalf told the Post.
And Stalf is honest and forthright about how Edgewater managed to afford a new combination city hall-library-gym-police station, with electric-vehicle charging stations, gender-neutral bathrooms and fitness equipment in a room with a view of the Denver skyline.
Without tax money from marijuana sales, which Edgewater embraced from the first day of legal sales on January 2014, Stalf told the Post, “We’d still be chasing it.” Before the weed money rolled in, Edgewater police worked out of an old butcher shop and were so short on space that nearby cop shops had to store evidence. Edgewater’s city hall was an old furniture store, the Post reported. Edgewater had a fire department, but decided in 2012 to disband it and join a nearby regional fire-protection district.
But from the beginning of legal sales in Colorado, the first state in the country to record commercial transactions in adult-use cannabis (Washington, which legalized on the same night on Election Day 2012, would follow a few months later), Edgewater’s marijuana dispensaries remained open until midnight, hours later than in nearby Denver. That meant automatic business in the evening and nighttime hours.
Edgewater has managed to keep this revenue stream alive despite steadily diminishing marijuana prices, a phenomenon that could eventually lead to the end of such largess (unless governments begin taxing cannabis by weight, as Stanford psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys, whose counsel many in government have sought in the legalization era, has suggested).
In this way, Edgewater demonstrates how cities can keep the lights on by responsibly embracing regulated commercial marijuana sales, but also harbor reasonable expectations. It wasn’t the city’s plan to become solvent thanks to cannabis —as in, the city did not budget far into the future, based on projected revenues thanks to weed —but it happened.
Other cities have an opportunity to follow suit or not. And when the next town with a ban on retail dispensaries has to cut libraries or fire cops, voters should know what to blame.
TELL US, have you seen how cannabis benefits your community?