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Marijuana: Smart Colorado wants to ban retail pot shops -- or does it?

The group that organized opposition to Amendment 64, which allows adults to use and possess small amounts of marijuana, was called Smart Colorado. Now, a new organization by the same name has been created to lobby legislators tackling legislation required to enact the measure, with a bill expected to be introduced next week.

The new Smart Colorado reportedly opposes retail stores for recreational pot -- but that's not what a spokeswoman for the group told us.

We first wrote about Smart Colorado Mark II in January posts about Project SAM, a national outfit co-founded by former Congressman Patrick Kennedy and launched in Denver; it touts a public-health approach to marijuana. Then, earlier this month, the Denver Post headlined a Smart Colorado article "Group Forms to Oppose Colorado Marijuana Stores."

The Post's take on Smart Colorado is seemingly confirmed by a post on its website entitled "We Can Prohibit Pot Retail." According to the item, "It's not entirely clear Colorado voters knew they were launching a marijuana retail industry when they approved Amendment 64 -- or that they even support marijuana retail at all. Though this point is often lost in local news coverage, it is a very important one: Colorado voters approved an amendment to allow or prohibit retail sales of marijuana. Smart Coloradans have made the distinction."

The piece backs up this assertion -- one vigorously rejected by members of the A64 campaign, who point out that the provisions of the measure were publicly vetted for well over a year -- with the following anecdote:

Take, for example, a meeting led earlier this month by Denver City Councilwoman Mary Beth Sussman, who represents the city's District 5, which includes the affluent neighborhoods of Lowry and Crestmoor Park. When Ms. Sussman asked the roughly 60 people in attendance -- nearly all of whom were her constituents -- whether they knew they were voting for the opening of marijuana retail stores, only about a third of her audience members raised their hands affirmatively.

However, earlier in the meeting, her constituents made their views very clear. They overwhelmingly do not want marijuana stores in or near their neighborhoods. They do not think the conversion from "medical marijuana dispensary" to a retail shop should be an easy one -- or even necessarily happen at all. They also want to ensure there are public hearings to determine whether a store's conversion from dispensary to retailer is allowed.

So...is banning pot retail stores in Colorado despite A64's passage Smart Colorado's main goal? Not according to Suvi Miller, one of the group's spokespersons.

"We know there is a portion of this that's moving into retail," she says. "That's what the amendment was about, in part. The 'no' campaign was certainly concerned about the passage and retail implementation, but the way we're looking at it now is, the voters passed this amendment. But there are still concerns about what they wanted from it -- what they were looking for and what they were concerned about versus this being an absolute blanket on a big industry for marijuana."

Continue for more of our interview with Smart Colorado spokeswoman Suvi Miller.

Miller is a licensed clinical social worker with a specialty in treating children who've experienced trauma; she spent part of her career in New York, but the majority in Colorado. Just as important: "I'm a mom. I have two teenagers -- sixteen and thirteen."

Suvi Miller.
Suvi Miller.

Concerns about marijuana and its impact on adolescents inspired her to attend a workshop this past summer featuring presentations by Dr. Christian Thurstone and Kevin Sabet, both major participants in Project SAM. Their comments about the impact of marijuana on the development of young people rang true for her.

"I don't do substance-abuse treatments with kids, but some of the kids I've worked with over the years have had real issues with substance abuse," she says. "And since one of my kids is in high school, and one is headed to high school, I was interested in where the research is going."

Miller wound up connecting with the post-A64 version of Smart Colorado, which she says isn't only oppositional. "This is not about pushing back and repealing," she stresses. "It's about what we do with this and how do we help Colorado be as smart about this as we can, and really focus on the health of the citizens, as well as the economy.

"We certainly have concerns about what the federal government is going to do -- and it's been interesting that even though they've not been quite silent, they haven't offered a whole lot of information so far," she continues. "But we have our feet on the ground now, with it moving through the legislature."

Indeed, as 7News reports, members of the House-Senate committee tasked with preparing marijuana legislation are expected to cast a number of votes today. True, they'll be nonbinding, but they should set the stage for the introduction of actual legislation next week.

With that in mind, Miller says "banning retail stores isn't something we're identifying with. We're much more into making sure public health and safety of Coloradans is put first. We want to move forward with regulatory framework, and make sure there's enough regulation that we're really tracking and understanding the industry, and also making sure people on the retail side or the production side are accountable for what they're doing."

Continue for more of our interview with Smart Colorado's Suvi Miller.

Judging by a devastating report about the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division from the office of state auditor Dianne Ray, such a process won't be easy to put in place. The office's release about the document featured the blunt title ""State Oversight of Colorado's Medical Marijuana Industry Ineffective," and the analysis itself pointed out that seed-to-sale tracking of cannabis approved by MMJ regs still hasn't been implemented, despite more than $1 million spent on the effort to date.

"There have been medical marijuana gaps in terms of regulatory authority and how many people can do these inspections," Miller points out. "So we want to make sure that when we're implementing this, we're not doing what we did with medical marijuana -- taking one step forward and then having to admit, 'We didn't think of this.'

"We're also concerned that we're paying for this regulation, and paying for what we feel should be really important, which is education. The Amendment 64 people have said, 'We want to treat this like alcohol,' and we know that there a lot of issues with alcohol around addiction and social impact on kids and families. So we want part of the money for taxation on marijuana to be used for education about this for kids."

In her view, "kids don't really have the information about marijuana. Anecdotally, they'll say things like, 'It helps you focus, it helps with seizures, it makes you more creative, I do better in school if I'm smoking marijuana during the day, it helps me with anxiety.' That's not universal, but you often hear them say it's good for you. That's part of the perception that's been presented. So we need to educate them, and we need to figure out how we're going to pay for it. And the costs shouldn't be on taxpayers."

The other big piece of the puzzle for Smart Colorado, Miller says, "is the idea that this is going to generate income for the state. But if it's not going to generate income for the state, and it's going to be a burden on taxpayers, we have to look at things carefully to make sure that doesn't happen. And we also don't want diversion. There's a lot of diversion we see from medical marijuana: We hear about it from principals, teachers, kids. So minimizing diversion is a huge push for us -- how we create a framework so that this is happening minimally, and make sure that packaging of edibles and advertising doesn't target kids. If the edibles are formed like cotton candy and Chex mix and lollipops, things that are traditionally used more by kids than adults, you can see how a kid could easily consume far more than they were expecting."

Given these concerns, and the short timeline for making decisions, Miller sees Smart Colorado's role in part as educating legislators about the issues. "I think they're trying very hard to understand all the implications around marijuana," she says. "But we think it's important they hear both sides, so they can make informed decisions."

More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: Project SAM touts public-health approach to pot in fighting legalization."