For city managers nationwide, marijuana is high on the agenda

Assistant manager Dunn Ericson refills a jar of medical marijuana at the River Rock Medical Marijuana Center in Denver, Colorado, on May 16, 2013. (Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Assistant manager Dunn Ericson refills a jar of medical marijuana at the River Rock Medical Marijuana Center in Denver, Colorado, on May 16, 2013. (Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/MCT) Chicago Tribune/MCT

In Port Townsend, Wash., City Manager David Timmons said he’s trying to figure out how to handle city employees who want to use medical marijuana at work.

In Boulder, Colo., City Manager Jane Brautigam said the city bought a new truck for inspectors who complained about the smell of marijuana after going to new pot establishments.

And in Charlotte, N.C., City Manager Ron Carlee is wondering how long it will be before the new challenges of marijuana legalization find their way to his state.

“This is all totally fascinating me, sitting in North Carolina, where our hot issue in Mecklenburg County is banning tobacco use in public places,” he said. “It will be a long time before we have to wrestle with the marijuana issues _ possibly. But who knows?”

The popular push to legalize pot has put marijuana high on the agenda for the 4,000 city and county managers gathered in Charlotte this week for their 100th annual conference.

It’s a time when the professionals charged with overseeing the nuts and bolts of local government operations get together each year to share their best practices.

On Tuesday, the group _ called the International City/County Management Association _ put together a presentation on what marijuana legalization could mean for local communities and governments.

City and county officials said it’s a growing issue of concern for them after Washington state and Colorado opened retail pot shops this year and 23 states now allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes.

“At the end of the day, professional managers have to implement those decisions,” said Carlee, who moderated the marijuana discussion.

Timmons, of Port Townsend, said land-use planners in his community have sought to make sure pot stores aren’t located next to schools or parks. And he said police in Washington state have had to change their training protocols, noting that even some police dogs have had to be retrained to no longer sniff marijuana.

“You kind of have to change that whole culture within the police agencies,” Timmons said.

He said city officials have discussed personnel regulations and how to deal with employees who have prescriptions for marijuana with no specific dosages. Union leaders already have raised the issue of using marijuana at work on behalf of city employees.

“It’s coming, and we’ve got to kind of create some kind of guidelines for it,” Timmons said.

In Colorado, Brautigam said her city decided to use armored trucks to collect tax revenues from the city’s new all-cash marijuana businesses, which can’t use banking services because marijuana is still illegal under federal law. Even the cash smells like pot, she said, and the city decided to buy new uniforms and a new truck for inspectors after discovering that the smell was nearly impossible to eliminate.

“It is a very odiferous thing,” Brautigam said.

She said the city has not overhauled any of its personnel policies.

“You’re not allowed to be at work and be intoxicated, and that includes alcohol and marijuana, whether it’s prescribed or not,” Brautigam said.

Bill Kirchhoff, a former city manager who’s now a municipal adviser for the city of Coronado, Calif., said many cities will struggle as they try to stop treating marijuana use as a criminal issue and regard it more as a medical option for employees. And he predicted that such a transition will be particularly hard for older managers.

“That’s going to clash against the core values of your management team, who for decades now have been fighting marijuana and treating it as a crime,” Kirchhoff said.

And he said city and county managers will also face new burdens in dealing with the press.

“The last thing any city manager wants to hear through the media is that an employee is smoking pot down at City Hall,” Kirchhoff said. “You’ll have to get ahead of this curve somehow.”

City and county officials said they planned the panel discussion as a way to put a spotlight on their new role in dealing with marijuana legalization.

They said that cities and counties often have an underappreciated job while the attention goes to state legislators, who get to decide the larger policy questions of whether to legalize marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.

After listening to the presenters outline the issues facing cities, Carlee said: “This is a fascinating list of things that were probably were not discussed in state legislatures.”