Medical marijuana bill passes Senate on second reading -- but obstacles remain

Is HB 1284, the medical marijuana regulatory bill, on the cusp of passage? Could be. The state senate passed the bill on its second reading this afternoon, pushing it one crucial step closer to becoming law.

As Coloradans for Medical Marijuana Regulation's Matt Brown concedes, the measure could still be stopped short of the finish line. For one thing, Governor Bill Ritter could choose to use his veto authority, "and we're still waiting to hear if it will pass muster in the House.

"But I watched the entire debate today, and everything I saw seemed to favor us," he continues. "A lot of new amendments that would have been even better were voted down, but I didn't see any regression. Everything seemed progressive."

The attempts to change aspects of the legislation en route to senate passage were practically off the charts. According to Brown, "there have been over 170 total amendments since the bill was filed. I think that may actually have surpassed the long budget this year."

Given this frenzy, Brown is reticent to talk definitively about any particular segment until he sees it in black and white. But it appears that a passage giving city councils the power to effectively ban dispensaries in their community remains in the bill.

"They talked about that as a general issue a number of different times," Brown notes, "and from what I saw, there was nothing directly voted on that rewrote that section. But there was a lot of debate on both sides of the issue confirming that even if a council votes that way, it can still be sent to the ballot. So there is a mechanism in current law to allow us to challenge that, and none of the parties is expecting a big number of municipalities to try it."

Regarding assorted filing deadlines, they're not as near as the July 1 date that was floated recently, but close.

"They doubled the amount of time we were being given previously, but it's still incredibly short," Brown maintains. "The application deadline is August 1 and the 70-30 compliance date," pertaining to dispensaries certifying that they grow 70 percent of their product, "is September 1. So it's a little less rushed than it was, but still rushed."

Speaking of which, the last-minute flurry of activity included an amendment by Senator Josh Penry to designate medical marijuana as nontaxable at the state level. The amendment initially passed, but according to Brown, it failed in a subsequent procedure involving what's known as the Committee of the Whole, or COW in legislative parlance. In the end, he reveals, "sales taxes were repealed and then brought back half an hour later."

What's next? Throughout the rest of the day and into the evening, Brown says, various senators and representatives, including Tom Massey, the bill's official sponsor, and co-sponsoring Senator Chris Romer, will try to resolve any differences -- and the governor's office will offer its opinions as well. If there are no game-changing objections, HB 1284 "could come up for a third reading tomorrow -- or it could require a conference committee, which would meet and try to hash out a deal."

We should know which direction the bill is heading by tomorrow morning. Until then, Brown stresses that he's "feeling optimistic. It seems like we've reached the consensus point from all the different parties to wrap this up and get it signed."

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