Social issues and the weather found center stage in the first half of 2014 in Colorado, with legal pot and not-so-legal gay marriage claiming the headlines. Meanwhile, a snowy and rainy winter and spring caused the state’s snowpack to soar, resulting in a respite from the drought and more than a dozen deaths on rivers statewide.
Here are the top six Colorado stories from 2014 so far:
1. Marijuana’s Legalization Ushers In Celebration, Tragedy, Legal Snares
Some Coloradans rang in the new year not with champagne but with legally purchased recreational marijuana, when two dozen stores opened in eight cities across the state on Jan. 1. Colorado made history by becoming the first state to legalize recreational pot sales.
In April, businesses sold roughly $22 million worth of pot, an increase of 58 percent from January. Patrons pay a hefty tax on their purchases: An additional 15 percent wholesale excise tax is applied atop a sales tax of 12.9 percent.
Legalization brought challenges and tragedy: In the spring, police blamed at least two deaths on pot edibles.
On March 11, college student Levy Thamba Pongi, 19, jumped to his death in downtown Denver after eating more than six times the recommended amount of a marijuana cookie. A Denver man is accused of shooting his wife while she was on the phone with 911, police said, after he consumed marijuana-laced candy on April 14.
Critics also argue marijuana packing appeals to children, prompting state lawmakers to force retailers to clearly mark their wares as drugs. In March, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed legislation that requires opaque and child-resistant packaging. In June, a 7-year-old Basalt girl was hospitalized after eating an edible.
Businesses also experienced banking woes. Because marijuana still flouts federal law, banks are leery about servicing marijuana shops, leaving them to conduct all-cash transactions and susceptible to robbery and other hassles. In response, the IRS issued guidelines on how banks might handle businesses’ money, and state lawmakers in May renewed a bill that would allow businesses to enter into uninsured financial co-operatives that act somewhat like credit unions.
2. Boulder County And State Battle Over Gay Marriage
This summer, Colorado became the latest state where a challenge arose to a same-sex marriage ban.
On June 25, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled that Utah’s gay-marriage is unconstitutional, and the Boulder County clerk and recorder wasted little time granting marriage licenses to gay couples. The county, which has issued more than 100 licenses, said the Utah ruling applied to Colorado, too.
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers sued to prevent Boulder County from issuing more licenses, arguing the court had stayed its ruling until the U.S. Supreme Court could decide the matter.
“We firmly believe these are legal marriages,” clerk Hillary Hall said.
Colorado voters in 2006 approved an amendment to the state constitution that outlawed gay marriage. Gay couples can enter into civil unions that grant many legal rights.
3. Giant Western Slope Mudslide Kills 3
A massive three-mile-long mudslide killed three men on May 28 and carved a half-mile crater across a ridge saturated with snow, rain and mud.
The accident near Collbran on the state’s Western Slope claimed the lives of Clancy Nichols, 51, his 24-year-old son Danny and Wes Hawkins, 46. They were in the area to investigate problems with an irrigation ditch.
The ground’s instability hampered immediate search efforts and the slide was up to 30 feet deep at its edges.
“I’ve never seen so much earth move like that in my life,” Bill Clark, a cousin of one of the missing men, told the Associated Press. Geologists measured the slide at 2.8 on the Richter Scale. Higher-than-normal snowpack is one cause of rock slides, even small ones, the Colorado Geological Survey told CBS4.
4. Increased Snowpack Swells Dangerous Rivers, Tempers Drought
The increased snowpack altered Colorado’s spring in another way: Swollen and dangerous rivers across the mountains quenched the state’s reservoirs but also killed several kayakers and rafters.
By early July, at least a dozen people had accidentally drowned in Colorado’s rivers, including three along the heavily rafted Cache la Poudre River, which flowed at nearly five times its historic average for the spring.
In June, a group of tourists whose raft flipped on a trip down a tamer portion of the Poudre said the shock of the icy, churning waters hints at the danger: “It’s not a good feeling to be underneath the water,” one of the tourists said. “Mother Nature, do not mess with Mother Nature.”
A mid-May storm pushed the state’s snowpack to120 percent of normal, adding an inch of water to the state, Mage Hultstrand of the Department of Agriculture said. By July 1, data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service showed various state river basins with significantly higher snowpack, with the North Platte leading at 141 percent of normal.
The high snow levels and the fast-moving rivers follow a period of dry conditions in Colorado. According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, the entire state a year ago experience some drought conditions, with “exceptional drought” — the most severe form — hitting 18 percent of the state. As of July 1, only 2 percent of the state was in exceptional drought.
5. Denver Falters In RNC Bid, While GOP Hopeful Fight To Face Hickenlooper
A bipartisan crew of Colorado politicians hoped to land the 2016 Republican National Convention, but the national selection committee squashed their hopes when it announced in late June that Denver was not among the two finalists.
Denver was considered to have an advantage because it hosted the 2008 DNC, and the selection committee also praised its great weather. Concerns about legal marijuana and Colorado’s swing-state status were irrelevant in the committee’s selection, it said.
“It’s a business decision,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said during a visit to Denver on June 10. That clearly was the case. Denver needed to raise $60 million, or at least have those commitments in place, to snag the convention. Fundraising problems plagued the bid.
Meanwhile, four hopefuls battled for the GOP gubernatorial nomination this spring to face incumbent Gov. John Hickenlooper in the fall.
Democrats wished perennial firebrand Tom Tancredo — a former U.S. House representative, gubernatorial loser in 2010 and the nation’s most outspoken anti-immigration voice — would snare the primary win because it would likely mean a more lopsided general election.
But Bob Beauprez, also a former House representative, won June 24’s primary, beating Tancredo and two others.
Beauprez is in familiar territory: He ran for the governor’s seat, and lost, to Bill Ritter in 2006.
6. 75-Mile Car Chase Leads To Attempted Murder, Kidnapping, Carjacking Charges
On March 12, a former prison inmate carjacked two different vehicles after stealing a car with a 4-year-old boy inside, and seriously injured a state trooper as he led police on an hour-long, 75-mile car chase along metro-area highways.
Ryan Stone, 28, faces a bevy of charges, including attempted murder, kidnapping and carjacking.
The dramatic chase began at a Longmont gas station when Stone, police say, stole an SUV with young Allan Chavarria-Rodriguez inside. The boy was not injured.
Copter4 video showed Stone abandoning the SUV approximately 30 minutes later and carjacking a gold minivan, forcing the driver and passenger out. He drove the wrong way on Interstate 76 before ending up on E-470 and then got out and carjacked another car. Efforts to halt Stone, including stop sticks and spikes, were unsuccessful.
Stone crashed at Lincoln Parkway and Peoria Street in Douglas County, ran off and was apprehended after trying to climb a fence.
A state trooper, Bellamann Hee, was severely injured in the chase and is still recovering.
Stone had been incarcerated for several years on harassment, assault, weapons and drugs convictions.
Will Ellenburg, a bounty hunter who had been tracking Stone, told CBS4 he had tried to convince him to turn himself in: “All he said was he couldn’t do the time … he didn’t want to go back to prison.”
Stone faces 16 years to life in prison.
Runner Up: Small Plane Crashes Into Home In Northglenn
Related: Top 10 Colorado News Stories Of 2013
– Written by Tim Skillern for CBSDenver.com