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Nearly a decade after recreational cannabis sales began in Colorado, Golden takes its first rip (Local Tips & Reviews)

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Ashley Close prepares for the upcoming opening of Verts Neighborhood Dispensary in Golden on Tuesday, March 28, 2023. (Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Seventeen months after voters in this city said yes to recreational cannabis sales — and nearly a decade after the first retail joint and edible were sold in Colorado — this tourist-friendly city on the western fringe of the metro area is finally joining the pot party.

Verts Neighborhood Dispensary, formerly Golden Alternative Medicine and the city’s only medical marijuana shop, made its first recreational cannabis sale during a soft opening of the re-branded store this week.

Verts formally opens its doors at 511 Orchard St. on April 5 with a ribbon-cutting at — wait for it — 4:20 p.m.

For co-owner Ashley Close, the transition to recreational sales was nothing less than a matter of survival, as the medical side of the business in Colorado has slowed in recent years.

“Medical in general is going consistently down,” said Close, as an employee polished the windows of display cases inside the store Wednesday. “If we couldn’t get the city of Golden to allow this, we would have to close down.”

Verts will get a three- to-four-month head start on the competition — three other stores that got licenses to sell recreational weed in Golden aren’t expected to open for business until the summer. Only four dispensaries are permitted in the city.

What brought Golden to this moment was largely the result of what was going on around it.

For the first half-decade after legal sales began in Colorado in 2014, Jefferson County remained mostly a dry county for marijuana. Wheat Ridge, Edgewater and Mountain View had embraced the industry, but the big cities like Littleton, Lakewood, Arvada and Westminster had not.

That changed in 2020 when voters in both Littleton and Lakewood approved recreational sales.

Dan Rowland, another Verts co-owner and former director of public affairs for Denver’s Department of Excise & Licenses and the city’s Office of Marijuana Policy, said he and others in the industry started putting together a campaign for a citizen initiative to legalize sales in Golden.

That move brought city leaders to the table.

“We forced their hand,” Rowland said.

Steve Glueck, assistant to the city manager in Golden, said the city didn’t want to lose control of the process.

“We wanted to drive the bus — the city wanted to be in charge of what was going to happen,” Glueck said.

In April 2021, the city council referred two measures to the November ballot — one to permit sales and the other to impose a 6% city excise tax on marijuana transactions. Both passed, though the measure allowing sales squeaked through by only 54 votes out of nearly 6,600 cast.

“I remember waking up every 30 minutes that night as the totals were being updated and updated and updated,” Close said of that election night nearly 17 months ago.

But if anyone expects to see cannabis dispensaries popping up under the iconic “Howdy folks! Welcome to Golden” arch on Washington Street, think again. As part of the guardrails the city put in place, downtown Golden was made off-limits to pot shops as was the entire stretch of South Golden Road.

“The people of Golden are very protective of downtown,” Glueck said.

The city identified five locations in Golden where a shop could locate, including an area north of downtown near State Highway 93 and in the Colfax Avenue corridor to the south. Verts sits near the junction of heavily used U.S. 6 and Interstate 70.

“It doesn’t need to be in your face — I get it,” said Close about Golden’s decision to exclude downtown. “That’s common and expected.”

Truman Bradley, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, said zoning cannabis businesses to more far-flung parts of town is nothing new in Colorado.

“We often see this when communities first legalize,” he said. “There is still work to be done to gain acceptance and continue shedding the decades-long stigma associated with marijuana. It’s my hope that as businesses prove to be good neighbors that some of the restrictions go away. After all, marijuana is clearly safer than alcohol.”

Bradley, a resident of Golden, said he’s glad to see his city finally dip its toe in the water.

“For too long, Golden has been missing out on tax revenue as other residents and I have had to do our cannabis shopping elsewhere,” he said. “Now the tax money will be put to good use for Golden residents whether they voted for it or not.”

According to city estimates, Golden expects to collect $600,000 in marijuana excise tax revenue in 2024, the first year it will have all four shops open and selling. Glueck said the city will decide this summer where to direct those monies.

“The potential range would include substance abuse, mental health programs, housing insecurity and food insecurity — those would be the top four,” he said.

Close said she is wary as she opens her Golden store just as marijuana sales start to slow in Colorado. The state set a record in 2021 with more than $2.22 billion in sales.

“It’s competitive — it’s retail,” she said. “You gotta stay competitive.”

But that hasn’t dissuaded some from wondering when recreational weed can finally be had in Golden. During Tuesday night’s city council meeting, Councilwoman JJ Trout said anticipation is high.

“I have a friend texting for more than a year about when this is going to happen,” she said.

This story was first published by The Denver Post, a BusinessDen news partner.

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