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Marijuana: Smart Colorado's campaign to slow recreational pot sales launch

Numerous members of the marijuana industry see the City of Denver as putting up obstacles to shops wanting to be open for the January 1 kickoff of recreational pot sales -- a claim officials vigorously deny. But there's one local organization that appears to be doing all it can to prevent the launch from going smoothly: Smart Colorado, which has recently shared an open letter to the mayor and city council highly critical of its actions and a how-to guide to delaying hearings that must take place before stores can be approved.

Given that Smart Colorado's motto is "Protecting Youth from Marijuana," many observers were expecting the organization to weigh in on Denver City Council's decision to decriminalize pot for those under 21 -- a proposal that's up for a final vote on Monday. And the group's most recent post seems to be laying the groundwork for such opposition. Entitled "More Shocking Health Studies," the piece notes that "Smart Colorado is being inundated with studies showing the health impact that marijuana has on our youth," and highlights two of them: "Brain Scan Suggests that 'Pothead' Stereotype Might Be Real," from Health magazine, and the Time magazine item "Pot Smokers, Schizophrenics May Share Similar Brain Changes."

Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks is championing the decriminalization of marijuana for those under age 21.
Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks is championing the decriminalization of marijuana for those under age 21.

There's no mention thus far of a federal study showing that teen marijuana use hasn't gone up despite changes in state pot laws -- but Mason Tvert, Amendment 64 proponent and Marijuana Policy Project spokesman, certainly wants the information out. Read more about it below.

Among the other recent items posted by Smart Colorado is an "Open Letter to Denver's Mayor and City Council" from child welfare scholar Kathleen Wells and architect Liz O'Sullivan, both of whom live in Capitol Hill. We've produced their entire missive on the next page of this post, but here's a telling excerpt about information Denver officials are said to be ignoring in their rush to institute A64:

Despite attempts to change its classification, marijuana remains a Schedule I Controlled Substance: It has a high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use, and is unsafe. This classification, along with fact-based scientific evidence of the serious, adverse, and permanent effects of early and persistent marijuana use, was not admitted at this hearing. Testimony from an administrator of group homes for men in recovery within 2 blocks of the facility, an administrator of a preschool within 4 blocks, parents and neighbors concerned with "drug tourism" and its related effects (parking problems, public drug use, unsafe condition of users driving out of neighborhoods) were not persuasive. Information from Denver's Office of Drug Strategy showing that teenagers obtain drugs through social contacts "and the more legal opportunities to purchase the drug in the community results in greater opportunities for youth to obtain those drugs," was also disallowed.

Still, the recent Smart Colorado post that offers the most practical advice to those wishing to slow the weed legalization train is probably " Basic Steps to Prepare for Retail Marijuana Store License Hearing ."

Step one in the document, also shared here, informs folks how to ask for a 25-day hearing extension -- something capable of preventing given shops from opening on January 1. Also included are strategies about the best arguments against such stores opening, as well as the procedure for filing an objection after a recommendation is made.

Clearly, Smart Colorado wants Denver officials to slow down when it comes to pot, whereas people in the cannabis industry would prefer them to speed up. We'll have a better idea which tactics were most successful come New Year's Day.

Continue to see the open letter to Denver's mayor and city council, the license hearing steps and a Marijuana Policy Project release about a new federal drug study.

A banner from Smart Colorado's website.
A banner from Smart Colorado's website.

"Open Letter to Denver's Mayor and City Council," as seen on the Smart Colorado website:

Amendment 64 promised that recreational marijuana would be regulated like alcohol. It is not being regulated like alcohol in the City of Denver. Denver's approximately 200 medical marijuana dispensaries were established without input from neighborhood residents or organizations, and these facilities are now able to acquire retail marijuana licenses without attention to the "needs and desires" of the neighborhoods in which they are located, which must be considered in the establishment of new liquor stores.

Instead, the Director of Excise and Licenses may grant a retail marijuana license to any dispensary that applies, unless opponents can show that a particular facility previously operated in a manner that violated relevant codes, or adversely affected the health, welfare, or safety of the immediate neighborhood in which it is located, or that the issuance of a retail license will adversely affect the neighborhood in the future.

It is nearly impossible to determine whether a dispensary has violated codes or previously operated in a manner that adversely affected a neighborhood. Performance audits of medical marijuana regulatory systems by the State and the City both show wide-spread regulatory breakdown. As a result, there are very limited data with which to judge compliance with regulations and related adverse effects of dispensaries on neighborhoods. In addition, short of robberies or shootings, calls to the police about illegal behavior related to dispensaries are unlikely to be answered in sufficient time for police reports to be filed.

Determining future harm is equally problematic. Although guidelines (City Attorney's Office, Sept. 4, 2013 memo) indicate that evidence may be presented as to how a retail facility "potentially will" affect the neighborhood in the future, the officer (William Hobbs) in the hearing that we attended (Nov. 20, 2013), disallowed any testimony considered speculative. He argued that speculation is insufficient to establish "good cause" to deny the license. This is a problem: There is no way to demonstrate harmful future effects without introducing speculation. In addition, because there are no existing retail marijuana stores anywhere, no fact-based evidence can be provided as to how retail marijuana stores affect neighborhoods.

Despite attempts to change its classification, marijuana remains a Schedule I Controlled Substance: It has a high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use, and is unsafe. This classification, along with fact-based scientific evidence of the serious, adverse, and permanent effects of early and persistent marijuana use, was not admitted at this hearing. Testimony from an administrator of group homes for men in recovery within 2 blocks of the facility, an administrator of a preschool within 4 blocks, parents and neighbors concerned with "drug tourism" and its related effects (parking problems, public drug use, unsafe condition of users driving out of neighborhoods) were not persuasive. Information from Denver's Office of Drug Strategy showing that teenagers obtain drugs through social contacts "and the more legal opportunities to purchase the drug in the community results in greater opportunities for youth to obtain those drugs," was also disallowed.

The City Council is aware that Denver is saturated with dispensaries, all of which could convert to retail marijuana stores. The City Attorney's memo refers to "the extremely high concentration of medical marijuana businesses already existing in Denver." Yet Council has endorsed policies that favor the marijuana industry over child and neighborhood, especially inner-city neighborhood, welfare.

The majority of citizens do not want marijuana to be regulated LESS strictly than alcohol: However, this is what City Council has delivered. We call for immediate action to correct this mistake.

Here's an anti-Amendment 64 video promoted by Smart Colorado:

Smart Colorado's "Basic Steps to Prepare for Retail Marijuana Store License Hearing."

1. Determine whether a 25 day extension on the hearing should be sought

a. must be a relevant registered neighborhood organization

b. request must be submitted in writing within 10 days of receiving emailed notice of the hearing

c. hearing WILL be rescheduled

2. Determine whether an evening hearing should be sought

a. must be party in interest

b. request must be submitted in writing at least 15 days prior to scheduled hearing date

c. granted at the discretion of the Director

3. Get a copy of and review the relevant file.

Five days prior to hearing request copy of findings by Denver Excise & License (EXL). Call the phone number listed on the Notice for New Retail Marijuana Store. (The Policies and Procedures Manual recommends that parties intending to participate in the hearing do this. Do not be bullied by employees of EXL into believing you are not entitled to this information.)

4. Notify residents within the Designated Area (5 blocks N/S/E/W of the proposed store).

While the Relevant Registered Neighborhood Organization (RNO) is given notice, individual residents are not. Consider a flyer or phone tree.

5. Convene RNO meeting.

Seek vote and official statement of opposition from RNO. Identify RNO representative for hearing.

6. Consider circulation of a petition, but do not use "needs and desires" language from liquor license petitions.

7. Seek assistance from your City Council member.

8. Execute good neighbor agreement?

Issues involving retail marijuana will be different than liquor. Four provisions can run with the license. Ex: trash, odor abatement, public consumption, sale of edibles. Not required to be executed prior to hearing, but parties must be ready at hearing to agree to negotiate and seek delay on license issuance from Excise & License.

9. Prepare for hearing:

a. Identify parties in interest (PI)

b. Prepare testimony on adverse impact to health, welfare and public safety

c. Select a representative to do cross-examination of applicant's witnesses and introduce parties in interest (limited to 3 individuals, additional PI can testify as a group)

d. Prepare exhibits and visuals, prepare for objections by both applicant and city to admissibility

e. Go to another hearing to watch the proceeding

10. Avoid speculative evidence of adverse impact on health, welfare or public safety. Recent hearing decisions and questions indicate admissible evidence must be:

a. tied to specific applicant, not general facts and information

b. based on PAST evidence of criminal activity, public consumption or loitering on or adjacent to the applicant's property. Examples: that police were called, or that applicant violated operating hours, had loitering or public consumption outside and witness saw the customer exit the facility or asked the loiterer or consumer where they obtained their marijuana (this is hearsay testimony that might be admitted in this context).

11. Get copy of the Hearing Officer's Recommended Decision.

At the end of the hearing, ask to be put on the distribution list.

12. Consider filing written objections to the Recommended Decision within 10 days of the emailing of the Recommended Decision.

All parties listed on the Certificate of Mailing must be mailed or e-mailed a copy of the written objections.

Mason Tvert at a press event earlier this year.
Mason Tvert at a press event earlier this year.
Photo by Sam Levin

Marijuana Policy Project release:

Federal Report is Expected to Show That Changes in State Marijuana Laws and the Escalating Legalization Debate Have NOT Resulted in Increased Teen Marijuana Use

NIDA-sponsored 'Monitoring the Future' survey, which will be released Wednesday, underscores the benefits of regulation versus prohibition -- teen alcohol and tobacco use have declined again while there has been no significant change in teen marijuana use

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Monitoring the Future national survey on drug use scheduled to be released Wednesday by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is expected to show that changes in state marijuana laws and the escalating marijuana legalization debate have not resulted in increased teen marijuana use. It also found that teen alcohol and cigarette use declined significantly while teen marijuana use remained relatively consistent, underscoring the benefits of regulation compared to prohibition.

A summary of the report released last week to members of the media indicates that marijuana use did not increase among 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-grade students in 2013 despite the passage of laws making marijuana legal for adults in Colorado and Washington in November 2012. The findings undermine the argument often made by marijuana policy reform opponents that passage of such laws and heightened public debate about the benefits of legalizing marijuana will result in more teens using the substance.

"These findings should put to rest any claims that reforming marijuana laws and discussing the benefits will somehow contribute to more teens using marijuana," said Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project. "It's time for prohibition supporters to stop hiding behind teens when debating marijuana policy."

Alcohol and cigarette use have continued to drop among teens, according to the report, and for the first time ever teens are using cigarettes at a lower rate than marijuana.

"Regulation clearly works and prohibition has clearly failed when it comes to protecting teens," Tvert said. "Regulating alcohol and tobacco has resulted in significant decreases in use and availability among teens, and we would surely see similar results with marijuana. At the very least, this data should inspire NIDA and other government agencies to examine the possibility that regulating marijuana could be a more effective approach to preventing teen use."

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: We're not undermining recreational pot sales launch, Denver mayor's office says."