Legal Weed in Pueblo: Economic wonder or public health crisis?

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One in 10 people in the town of Pueblo, Colorado are employed in the marijuana industry. Some claim it does wonders for the local economy, but the city’s health and housing services are feeling the strain.

Pueblo, Colorado was once an economic powerhouse. It made steel, and steel made America.

But when the steel mill started laying-off thousands of workers in the '70s the local economy crashed, and for decades the community of around 100,000 struggled to recover.

In 2000, Colorado legalised the production, sale and distribution of medicinal marijuana. Then, in 2012, the state legalised personal use of marijuana – and Pueblo was reborn.

Today, Pueblo is home to the largest cannabis farm in the world: La Suenos farms. And the retail and recreational tourism industry riding on cannabis has helped bring the town’s unemployment rate down from 12-15 per cent during pre-legalisation days to around four per cent.

Pueblo’s County Commissioner, Sal Pace, is quick to spruik how his community benefits from the tax revenue the cannabis industry is generating.

By the time you start paying the bureaucracy that you have built to regulate this industry there is no money. I mean, it sounds good on paper but there's no money.

“Every single high school graduate who wants to attend a local college or university is guaranteed a scholarship when they graduate from high school because of a scholarship program that we set up.”

But Pueblo’s sheriff, Kirk M. Taylor, doesn’t share Pace’s enthusiasm.

“By the time you start paying the bureaucracy that you have built to regulate this industry there is no money. I mean, it sounds good on paper but there's no money.”

Sheriff Taylor also says he has his work cut out for him policing the smuggling of marijuana out of Colorado.

And to give sole credit to the cannabis industry for propping up the economy is to overlook a lesson Pueblo learned decades ago: not to rely on one industry to support a community. Aerospace, recreation and renewable energy businesses have contributed to Pueblo’s growth.

Dr Karen Randall works in the emergency department at one of Pueblo’s major hospitals.  

“I have more patients with chronic medical problems who moved here in the hopes that marijuana would fix all that because that's what the industry is saying and it's not true.

She's concerned her town is looking at a future where cannabis gives rise to wide-scale dependence on harder drugs – the so-called ‘gateway drug’ theory.

“One hundred per cent of the people that I've asked how they started on their meth career or their cocaine or their opiate career, every one of them has said ‘I started with marijuana’.”

Cannabis is freedom from PTSD, freedom from sleep disorders, freedom from high anxiety, freedom from seizures, freedom from highly addictive, highly harmful pharmaceutical drugs.

Anne Stattelmann is the Director of Posado, a housing and support service. She says there’s not enough housing to accommodate the influx of people seeking cannabis, and homeless shelters are at capacity.

“Cannabis doesn't cause homelessness, I’m in agreement with that. However, policies that legalise cannabis in this state have led to the perfect storm and thus we have a homeless population that is here for pot.”

While Dr Randall and Stattelmann are sceptical of the benefits cannabis has brought to their town and sceptical about the direction they’re headed, Director of Sales for Los Suenos Farm, Michael “Caddy” Cadwell, remains an endless of font of praise for the ‘gateway drug’.

“My answer is yes, cannabis is a gateway drug. It's a gateway to freedom. Cannabis is freedom from PTSD, freedom from sleep disorders, freedom from high anxiety, freedom from seizures, freedom from highly addictive, highly harmful pharmaceutical drugs.”

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