Marijuana is lifting spirits — and budgets — in mountain towns

That smoke wafting down from the mountains west of Boulder may not all be from forest fires. According to a New York Times article today, mountain communities long known for their tolerance of the illegal weed are now becoming known as havens for legal smokers as well.

The Times reports that statewide about 1 in 60 residents has a medical marijuana license, but that in some mountain communities the ratio is closer to 1 in 20.

In Nederland, a town of 1,400, for instance, there are seven legal medical marijuana dispensaries. Town coffers are flush as a result.

In June alone, while many communities around the nation were still sputtering through economic doldrums, sales taxes collected in Nederland came in a robust 54 percent above those of June 2009. Without the tax collected on marijuana, the increase would have been 22 percent.

“It’s been here, probably in an illegal capacity, for a long time, but now there’s an opportunity for industry,” said Nederland’s mayor, Sumaya Abu-Haidar. “There’s an opportunity for free enterprise, an opportunity for people to make a living in a way that wasn’t available before.”

Philip Dyer, 45, a local musician, put it another way. The government, he said, “has finally gotten smart enough to regulate it and get their piece.”

Supporters of medical marijuana say the pattern — medical use most predominant in places of historically high recreational use — is simply a reflection of better knowledge about the drug and its properties. People in communities where marijuana has been accepted, they say, know more about its medical benefits than those in other parts of the state where medical marijuana patients are rare.

Eagle County and the town of Minturn, near the ski resort of Vail, both passed medical marijuana ballot questions allowing dispensaries and grow operations, and the Colorado Independent reported Friday that pro-legalization groups are already beginning to plan for 2012, when they think the state may finally be ready to pass a measure that would make pot legal in Colorado with or without a medical pretext.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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