In the weeds: Why did the Colorado health department put a Texas felon on its pot advisory committee?
The 100,000-plus medical marijuana patients now in Colorado have an official representative: Ken Weaver. That's according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which appointed Weaver to be the patient representative on the state's twelve-person Medical Marijuana Registry Committee, which will recommend how the department should implement Colorado's new medical marijuana laws.
This is just the latest item on a long, colorful resumé that stretches far beyond Weaver's reported desire to fight for fellow patients. These days, he associates with dispensary owners and marijuana lobbyists — but he previously owned a violation-prone Dallas power company; spent time in prison for stealing a plane, among other things; and made up that resumé.
Weaver did not respond to repeated phone calls from Westword. "He's probably on a plane somewhere," said a worker at the Farmacy, a company with apparent ties to Weaver and three dispensaries in the Denver area.
Weaver says he's a survivor of Hodgkin's lymphoma, according to Kristen Thomson, a political consultant who lobbies on behalf of dispensaries, including the Farmacy. "I met Ken at the Capitol during the hearings about the new laws, and he was really one of the more reasonable patients," she says. "If you went to any of the hearings, you'd know that patient seat on the committee was probably the most controversial to fill. If [the health department was] familiar with someone who wasn't screaming as a patient from the street, it was probably good to have that voice."
Other than noticing his Texas drawl, Thomson says, she doesn't know anything about where Weaver came from.
It took a couple of newspaper reporters to unravel that story. According to the Dallas Morning News, from 2006 until last year, Weaver owned Freedom Power, a company known for cutting off customers' electricity in the middle of summer, racking up the highest number of consumer complaints in Texas and violating more state rules than nearly any other utility company in the state. The paper reported that Weaver had constructed a bogus background that included imaginary college degrees, false football exploits and fake construction-executive credentials in order to enter the newly deregulated Texas telephone market in 1996. Ten years later he got into the electricity business when he bought Freedom Power — though he never changed the power company's license to list himself as owner. Dabbling in recently deregulated industries paid off for Weaver; profits from these ventures netted him a mansion, a penthouse and a fleet of nineteen trucks — and he began competing in truck and stock-car races, including NASCAR and Automobile Racing Club of America events.
But Weaver was actually a college dropout who'd spent time in prison for stealing cars as well as a single-engine Cessna. When authorities found the Cessna in south Texas in 1986, it was filled with money, a rifle, a set of scales and maps of Mexican airstrips.
After Morning News reporters first questioned him about his past in the summer of 2009, Weaver filed documents noting that he'd sold his share of both the telephone and power companies. In the story, which came out on October 5, 2009, Weaver admitted to constructing a fantasy life and promised to make things better. "But to be honest," he added, "my real instinct right now is to go hide under a rock."
Or move to Colorado. Four days before the article came out, Michelle Piwonski, a woman who'd shared an address with Weaver in Dallas, filed incorporation papers for Rocky Mountain Farmacy, joining entrepreneurs from across the country who were flocking to this state, lured by a new industry — medical marijuana — with very little regulation.
Weaver is not affiliated with the Farmacy, Piwonski insists. "He's not on any licenses, nothing," she says. "He is just a patient advocate." As for the Morning News story, it was "totally biased," she asserts. "None of that has anything to do with what he's doing right now."
And what is he doing right now? According to the Uptown Alliance's website, in November 2009 Weaver and Piwonski attended an Uptown neighborhood meeting and represented themselves as "the owners of the Rocky Mountain Farmacy."
Thomson says she'd associated Weaver with the Farmacy because he and Piwonski would attend hearings together at the Capitol, as well as meetings of Coloradans for Medical Marijuana Regulation (CMMR), a lobbying group that played a role in the development of the new medical marijuana laws. "When I first met them, I thought they were brother and sister," says Thomson.
The health department received roughly a hundred applications for the nine public positions, divided by affiliation and interest group, on the Medical Marijuana Registry Committee. The members, announced last week, include patient Weaver, primary caregiver Michael Marcella, dispensary owner Jill Lamoureux-Leigh, medical marijuana-recommending physician Rita Starritt, addiction specialist Christian C. Thurstone, chronic-pain expert Daniel Bennett, oncology specialist Daniel Bowles, Denver police officer Ernest Martinez, Colorado District Attorney's Council executive director Ted Tow, Jefferson County Public Health Department executive director Mark Johnson, Medical Marijuana Registry director Bob O'Doherty and Colorado Chief Medical Officer Ned Calonge.
Asked about Weaver's background, health department spokeswoman Lori Maldonado sent a detailed statement: "The department did not request information from any applicants regarding past criminal activity. We sought members who could represent relevant stakeholders for the rules required to be passed under HB 1284 and SB 109. The process included requesting a resumé and checking references, and the selection criteria included selecting individual(s) who are engaged in the process and, as stated above, who represent the stakeholders, in this case, patients. Also, we wanted to achieve some level of geographic diversity."
"We didn't know this person at all or any of the individuals," Maldonado elaborates. "I think the relevant issue would be what's going on now. If he didn't have cancer, that would be an issue. But we have no reason to believe that's the case."
Lobbyists weren't pulling strings during the selection process, Maldonado insists, noting that Calonge himself selected the members. "We didn't have any lobbyists, per se," she says, "but we did reach out to advocacy groups to ask them for feedback, for input, if they knew people they thought would be good to serve on the board." She adds that nowhere on the patient representative application did it state that the applicant couldn't have a relationship with a dispensary.
Thomson, who now works with the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, a consortium of dispensaries that includes the Farmacy and formed in the wake of CMMR's internal collapse, says she spoke with health department officials about the advisory committee, "but not about Ken specifically."
Maldonado says it's important to understand the role of the Registry Committee, which will meet monthly to develop recommendations that Martha Rudolph, the health department's new executive director, will take into consideration before she decides how the department should implement Colorado's new medical marijuana laws. "It's good to reiterate that this committee doesn't have any power, really," Maldonado says. "It is just a stakeholders' group."
A stakeholders' group that makes some people with a stake in the medical marijuana field very wary. "I am highly suspicious, and I feel very concerned about the makeup of this panel," says Brian Vicente, executive director of the drug-reform nonprofit Sensible Colorado. "It seems to be stacked with anti-marijuana zealots.
"Lieutenant Ernie Martinez called marijuana reform advocates a cancer on society," Vicente says of the law-enforcement representative. "I hardly think he is going to have an open mind in helping cancer patients use marijuana. Christian Thurstone wrote an article in the Denver Post calling medical marijuana a ruse. Colorado Chief Medical Officer Ned Calonge is no friend of medical marijuana himself. I really think it is not representative of the community, and it is really troubling to me."
Vicente, who didn't apply for a spot himself, recommended two potential patient representatives: HIV patient Damien Lagoy and Sensible Colorado patient outreach coordinator Dan Pope. Neither made the cut. And although he doesn't know much about Weaver, Vicente says, "I know a lot of patient advocates who got rejected because Ken Weaver got the job."
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