Colorado Springs business leaders and retired generals have been waging a public-relations campaign, suggesting the military might cut back assets here if City Council doesn’t ban retail sales of marijuana, now permitted under Amendment 64.
That’s news to the Pentagon.
“I wouldn’t think so,” said Department of Defense spokesman Lt. Col. Tom Crosson. “Military personnel are still subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which clearly prohibits marijuana use. They can’t use it, and we all get drug tested.
“But we won’t move assets out of states where it is legal now.”
Marijuana’s never been hard to buy, Crosson said, and the military has soldiers stationed in parts of the globe where it’s legal.
“An example is the Netherlands,” he said. “Marijuana is legal in that country. We have service members stationed in Germany and Belgium. They can go to the Netherlands on leave. They can’t smoke marijuana. In our case, it simply isn’t, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ The UCMJ covers that.”
The Pentagon isn’t worried about legalized marijuana because of the zero-tolerance policy in place since the Reagan administration, Crosson said. The military has a random system for testing individuals.
“It’s not like you can game the system,” he said. “You have two hours’ notice, sometimes less, and you’re monitored during the testing. You never know when the testing is going to come. It’s not like they check to see how long it’s been. … We test every single day.”
Local business leaders admit no one has confirmed their concerns that the military will depart or cut troops in the Springs if retail sales are available. Still, the fear — and the public push — remain.
“As a retailer, I’m concerned,” said Mike Jorgensen, president and partner of Red Noland Cadillac and president of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance. “It puts a pit in my stomach. If it were legal everywhere, then there’d be a level playing field. But it’s always the first whale out that gets harpooned.”
Jorgensen said that being on the “leading edge” of legalization is scary for businesses, because they aren’t certain what could happen.
“The Pentagon could say, ‘We don’t have this problem in Texas, let’s move the soldiers there,’” he said. “It’s so controversial still, outside the area. And while no one said this will happen, the concern is there.”
That uncertainty is behind the recent campaign to ban retail sales. Recreational use by anyone 21 and older is allowed under Amendment 64, and a retail ban won’t change that — or the option to obtain medical marijuana.
Nonprofit leaders have joined the charge. Terrance McWilliams, director of military and veterans affairs at El Pomar Foundation, told a crowd at a recent Fort Carson town hall that approving retail sales of marijuana would put the area’s military assets in jeopardy.
“It’s a serious issue,” he said. “And I’d encourage all of you to call City Council to encourage them to ban it. When the BRAC round comes, it could be a deciding factor. The active duty guys won’t tell you, so I’m telling you. It’s a threat to discipline and order.”
But it takes an act of Congress to close a military base, and it’s only done after years of study, community input and Pentagon recommendations. Known as the Base Realignment and Closure process, the next round was originally scheduled for 2015. But Congress is showing little appetite for closing military bases when the DoD is also drawing down its forces.
The House Armed Services readiness subcommittee recently turned down a White House proposal to start BRAC. Officials said there was too much uncertainty about the size of the military and the outcome in Afghanistan to spend the requested $2.4 billion during a five-year period to close bases.
“It’s premature to expend dollars we don’t have to fix a problem we’re not sure exists,” said subcommittee chairman Rep. Robert Wittman, a Virginia Republican, in an Associated Press story. “Strategy, not budgets, should drive national security decisions and I won’t support a reduction in our infrastructure until I’m confident our nation’s readiness, and our military, won’t suffer.”
Washington state legalized recreational marijuana use at the same time as Colorado. But there’s little furor there about losing its military assets, which includes Joint Base Lewis-McChord outside Tacoma, with its 25,000 military personnel and civilian workers.
“No, I’ve not even heard the possibility discussed,” said Gary Brackett, business and political manager at the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce. “Our state’s in the middle of rule-making right now, but we haven’t heard this particular concern. I don’t even know where that concern would come from. It’s already considered a legitimate business here, since the initiative passed.”
That “legitimate business” status in Washington apparently gives potential marijuana companies a voice in the business community. Tacoma’s chamber membership includes medical marijuana dispensaries, and once the state is finished making rules for retail sales, Brackett says he expects some of those businesses will join the chamber as well.
“As legitimate businesses, they have a right to belong to the local chamber,” he said. “It would be difficult to find a reason to turn them down.”
Here, the Business Alliance doesn’t follow that philosophy. It has no member/investors that are medical marijuana dispensaries. As the group leading the charge to ban retail sales, it’s unlikely they’d allow retail facilities.
The alliance believes that the defense, nonprofit and tourism industry sectors will be affected because of legalization — to the tune of about $14 billion.
“It is particularly important to note the significant and serious concerns the Department of Defense has with the ramifications of Amendment 64 to our military population, defense contractors and future decisions on where to place valuable economic assets that can be located in other communities and other states across our country,” the alliance said in a letter to City Council.
There’s little evidence to support that concern. In fact, several of the city’s largest defense companies had nothing but praise for Colorado Springs during a recent meeting at the Space Foundation of aerospace executives, Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Mike Coffman.
Marijuana was conspicuously absent from the agenda. Instead, every speaker spoke glowingly of their Colorado Springs operations.
“We’re looking to grow our presence here,” said Lori Thompson, vice president strategic planning and innovation for ITT Exelis Information Systems.
Russ Anarde, a retired Air Force brigadier general who heads Northrop Grumman’s local operations, also praised Colorado Springs, saying, “We have more than 1,000 employees here, and we’re very satisfied with the city. Our local economic impact is more than $100 million.”
Representatives of Ball Aerospace, Honeywell and Braxton Technologies also spoke optimistically of Colorado’s business climate.
“When we acquired the company and moved it to Colorado Springs,” said Braxton CEO Kevin O’Neil, “we had 25 employees. Today we have 138, and we plan to stay here and continue to grow.”
By contrast, Rep. Doug Lamborn hasn’t hesitated to express his opinion. In a June 2 local TV interview, Lamborn said, “I have the concern that if marijuana is freely available here in El Paso County, that could have a detrimental effect on the order and discipline of soldiers who are stationed at Fort Carson.” Catherine Mortensen, Lamborn’s press secretary, said he “hopes that local communities block the sale of marijuana.”
Asked whether the possible legalization of retail marijuana sales in Colorado Springs would affect their plans, Braxton’s O’Neil was unworried.
“I don’t think anything will change as far as we’re concerned,” he said. “I don’t see that it will have any effect.”
Honeywell senior marketing manager Eric Doremus had a slightly different take.
“(Legalization) may lead to a few individual tragedies,” he said, “where people just foolishly destroy their careers, but our policies won’t change. Our employees know what they are, and they know, for example, that if they’re involved in a work-related accident that the first thing we do is test for drugs, and a positive test can have very serious implications. But as far as our business plans are concerned, I don’t see any changes.”
That also seems to be the stance the Pentagon is taking.
“Service members who use marijuana know they’ll be punished,” Crosson said. “And it will affect their careers. We tell them that, repeatedly, no matter whether it’s legal in the state or not.”
CSBJ senior writer John Hazlehurst contributed to the reporting of this story.