Medical marijuana: Does using $9 million in fees for budget shortfall screw MMJ patients?
Although Governor Bill Ritter signed medical marijuana bills earlier this year, he's never been a big fan of the stuff. Still, he hopes to use $9 million in MMJ fees to help fill a $60 million budget hole -- a decision that angers advocates upset by the tremendous backlog of unprocessed license applications.
Among those upset by this turn of events is the Cannabis Therapy Institute's Laura Kriho, who points to this passage in the medical-marijuana-regulatory measure, still widely known as HB 1284:
12-43.3-501. Medical marijuana license cash fund. (1) ALL MONEYS COLLECTED BY THE STATE LICENSING AUTHORITY PURSUANT TO THIS ARTICLE SHALL BE TRANSMITTED TO THE STATE TREASURER, WHO SHALL CREDIT THE SAME TO THE MEDICAL MARIJUANA LICENSE CASH FUND, WHICH FUND IS HEREBY CREATED AND REFERRED TO IN THIS SECTION AS THE "FUND". THE MONEYS IN THE FUND SHALL BE SUBJECT TO ANNUAL APPROPRIATION BY THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY TO THE DEPARTMENT OF REVENUE FOR THE DIRECT AND INDIRECT COSTS ASSOCIATED WITH IMPLEMENTING THIS ARTICLE. ANY MONEYS IN THE FUND NOT EXPENDED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE MAY BE INVESTED BY THE STATE TREASURER AS PROVIDED BY LAW. ALL INTEREST AND INCOME DERIVED FROM THE INVESTMENT AND DEPOSIT OF MONEYS IN THE FUND SHALL BE CREDITED TO THE FUND. ANY UNEXPENDED AND UNENCUMBERED MONEYS REMAINING IN THE FUND AT THE END OF A FISCAL YEAR SHALL REMAIN IN THE FUND AND SHALL NOT BE CREDITED OR TRANSFERRED TO THE GENERAL FUND OR ANOTHER FUND.
Seems pretty straightforward -- and Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer doesn't dispute the language. But that doesn't mean the money is permanently off-limits to any use other than that pertaining to medical marijuana.
"As with all cash-funds transfers, it's contingent upon legislative approval to change that wording," he says. "But we have the ability to make the transfer if the legislature acts.
"This is essentially a proposal -- a plan we've submitted to the joint budget committee that they will review. Then it will go to the full legislature for a decision. And this is not unique to the medical marijuana fund. That language exists with all or most of the cash funds, and those types of transfers have helped us keep our budget balanced, along with spending cuts and eliminating programs and furloughs and reducing take-home pay. They've been one part of a larger strategy."
Moreover, Dreyer notes, the medical-marijuana fund has been used in precisely this way already: "We did it with the medical marijuana fund this year, when the legislature was in session. They approved a $3 million transfer" -- a move that received next-to-no publicity.
Such shifts would strike Kriho as problematic under any circumstances. But they're especially worrisome to her considering that "there are 70,000 license applications sitting on the shelf right now. Why can't we process the applications first and then see if there's any money left over? All these patients are waiting for their registry cards -- the wait is over nine months now. And somehow the registry has extra money to give to the state even though they can't do their own jobs correctly?"
In response, Dreyer says the delay in processing the cards "isn't a funding issue. The volume of applications has been so high that the department [of health] hasn't had the capacity to process all of them. So the department requested additional funding from the joint budget committee to hire dozens of more people to help eliminate the backlog, and that's underway. The transfer of funds is over and above what's necessary to implement the program and reduce the backlog."
The assertion that more money wouldn't speed up the process isn't compelling to Kriho, who feels such budget games violate the spirit of Amendment 20, the measure that legalized medical marijuana in Colorado -- specifically the line that reads, "The state health agency may determine and levy reasonable fees to pay for any direct or indirect administrative costs associated with its role in this program."
"This shows how the government really doesn't value the needs of the patients at all," she says, adding, "I hope someone challenges this in court."
Page down to read the Cannabis Therapy Insitute's release about the fund transfer:
Governor Wants to Steal Patient Registry Fees to Balance Budget
Has Ritter Become Addicted to Cannabis Revenues?
Denver -- Just weeks after the state received an $8 million windfall in application fees from medical marijuana retail centers, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter wants more money from medical marijuana patients, this time from a Constitutionally-protected patient Registry fee fund.
Ritter announced on Monday that he plans to ask the legislature to divert $9 million in medical marijuana patient fees from the Medical Marijuana Program Cash Fund to the state General Fund. However, this action would violate both the Colorado Constitution and Colorado Revised Statutes.
Article XVIII, Section 14 (3) (i) of the Colorado Constitution (Colorado's Medical Marijuana Amendment) states that the medical marijuana Registry fees shall only go to pay "any direct or indirect administrative costs" of the program.
In addition, Colorado Revised Statute 25-1.5-106 (13) (a) states: "All moneys credited to the medical marijuana program cash fund and all interest derived from the deposit of such moneys that are not expended during the fiscal year shall be retained in the fund for future use and shall not be credited or transferred to the general fund or any other fund."
This means the money that patients pay to the Registry cannot be appropriated for other uses. It can only be used for administrative costs to run the Registry.
Call Governor Bill Ritter
Phone: (303) 866-2471
"It's illegal, it's unconstitutional and it's wrong. These are suffering patients. They don't have a lot of money, and the state government should not be balancing their budget on their backs," said attorney Robert J. Corry, Jr. in an interview with KUSA-TV in Denver.
"Even if the Governor got the state legislature to approve changing the statute to allow this transfer, as they did earlier this year for the amount of $3 million, they still would not be able to get around the Constitution," says Kathleen Chippi, a Nederland medical marijuana patient. "Only a vote of the people can amend the Constitution."
"This is just another example of the state persecuting cannabis patients," says K. Evan Rude, a patient advocate from the American Medical Marijuana Standards Association located in Boulder County. "Governor Ritter built his career as a prosecutor and as Governor putting people in jail for marijuana crimes. He has been vehemently against medical marijuana for his entire career. But now he feels it's OK to take money from the sick and dying people who use cannabis as medicine to balance the state budget. He should be ashamed of himself."
The Department of Public Health and Environment currently has a backlog of over 70,000 patient applications, each containing a check for $90.00 from a patient, totally more than $6 million in uncashed checks. The average wait for the state to process the simple two-page patient application is 7 to 9 months. The state should work on reducing the backlog of patient applications and use the Registry fees to help patients. Instead, the money will go into the General Fund, and the funds may eventually be used to prosecute and imprison patients and their physicians for medical marijuana "crimes".
Evan Dreyer, the Governor's spokesperson, issued a written statement on the issue, "As with all cash-fund transfers, this specific proposed transfer is contingent upon the legislature changing the language in the statute so we can make the transfer to the general fund. We did this with the Medical Marijuana Program Fund earlier this year when the legislature was still in session (for $3 million). The legislature's Joint Budget Committee will be asked to OK this $9 million transfer later this year, and then the full legislature will review it in January."
Dreyer could not explain why the Governor felt that he could override the Constitutional clause that assures the money will only be used for administrative costs of running the Registry program.
Please call Governor Ritter and your state representatives and senators to protest the transfer of these funds out of the Registry. This money is earmarked for the patients in the Constitution and the Governor and legislature should not try to steal these funds.
CALL THE GOVERNOR
Governor Bill Ritter
136 State Capitol
Denver, CO 80203-1792
Phone: (303) 866-2471
Fax: (303) 866-2003
Send a copy of any correspondence to: email@example.com
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