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Medical marijuana businesses in Pitkin County are in legal limbo

A handful of medical marijuana centers in unincorporated Pitkin County are sitting in legal limbo, waiting on county authorities to move forward with regulations that the state says are necessary for the shops to stay in business.

Currently, Pitkin County does not regulate medical marijuana grows or centers in unincorporated areas. Last June, just a few days before county commissioners were to pass comprehensive medical marijuana code, Pitkin County attorney John Ely advised against adopting medical marijuana regulations, saying that doing so would put the county in violation of federal laws.

"The conduct that is contemplated in the statutes of Colorado is illegal," Ely said to commissioners at the time. "I don't think the county should be in the position of abetting the violation of federal law."

Following that advice, the commissioners opted to not address the issue at all -- neither banning nor approving medical marijuana centers in Pitkin County. Instead, they assumed that if they took no action, the businesses would be regulated by the state. But because state approval hinges on local authorization, the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division recently made it clear that licenses won't be issued to the handful of businesses currently operating in unincorporated Pitkin County until the situation is resolved.

Essentially, the county commissioners were faced with the prospect of indirectly shutting down the local dispensaries by doing nothing. "We took the approach that we could let the state handle it, but they won't allow that," says Pitkin County Commissioner Rob Ittner. "So now, if we don't come up with our regulations and regulate them ourselves, it's a denial for their state application."

Ittner, who earlier this week told us that he wasn't sure which way he or the council was leaning, now says he foresees a positive outcome for the dispensaries. After a work session on Wednesday, the commissioners have preliminarily decided to pursue licensing the shops, although they aren't sure what those regulations will look like yet.

According to the Aspen Times, the possibility of limiting licensees in the county was discussed. And while there are only a small handful of MMCs in unincorporated Pitkin County, the area is home to a number of grow operations for Aspen dispensaries.

The owner of Aspen Roaringfork Wellness is hopeful that the commissioners will change their minds so he can remain in business. "I think they're all for it," says Jim, who declines to give his last name. "I mean, they were ready to regulate it last June. They had a fee schedule, a set of rules, everything." Since the commissioners have historically been pro-business, he adds that he'd be surprised if they don't move forward. "They know what will happen if they don't," he says. "They know the advantages and benefits of it."

Ittner says the commissioners probably won't make any final decisions until they have had more time to discuss it. "I guess it's going to be a couple of months," he says. "We'll probably have another work session now and then."

More from our Marijuana archive: "Medical marijuana ban defeated in Palisade in part due to low-key approach, center owner says."