By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Officials in Colorado's second-largest city voted on Tuesday to ban recreational marijuana shops, becoming the largest community in the state to utilize an opt-out provision of a law that legalized the non-medical use of pot.
After two hours of public comments, the Colorado Springs City Council voted 5-4 to bar retail pot stores from opening within the city limits. The debate and vote came after Mayor Steve Bach publicly said he would veto the ordinance if the council approved allowing the recreational outlets.
"I say we should stand with our neighbors on this issue," Bach testified before the vote, referring to nearby communities in the same county that have banned the pot shops.
Colorado Springs has a population of about 420,000 with a large military and evangelical Christian presence and is one of the most conservative and Republican areas in a state which in recent election cycles has turned leftward.
Last year, Colorado and Washington were the first U.S. states to legalize recreational marijuana, and the Colorado law allows cities or counties to outlaw marijuana stores in their communities. Nearly 20 states, including Colorado, allow marijuana use for medical purposes.
Colorado Springs does have medical marijuana dispensaries, which would be unaffected by the recreational pot vote.
But the federal government lists cannabis as a dangerous narcotic and considers it illegal for any purpose, a point underscored by Colorado Springs residents who spoke on Tuesday in favor of the ban.
Brian Burnett, vice chancellor of finance for the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, said allowing cannabis stores could affect the school's ability to seek government research grants and provide college educations to military veterans.
"We are heavily federally funded," he said.
But resident Rob Wiley urged the council to approve the shops so "black market street dealers no longer will have the exclusive franchise" on marijuana sales.
Elected bodies of 35 Colorado towns or cities have voted to opt out of allowing recreational marijuana stores, according to data from the Colorado Municipal League. The possession and use of small amounts of cannabis by adults is still legal in the communities that have banned non-medical pot shops.
In November, voters statewide will decide whether to impose a 25 percent excise and sales tax on recreational pot sales to fund its regulation and enforcement.
(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Eric Beech)