As a recent Court of Appeals decision and a Board of Health brouhaha made clear, Colorado's medical marijuana is in desperate need of an overhaul. While officials and dispensary owners tussle over ridiculously vague pot laws, the state's marijuana patients are stuck in between -- a population that continues to grow by leaps and bounds.
So how do we fix this mess? One option might be to copy New Mexico's new medical marijuana system, in which state-licensed nonprofit dispensaries grow and distribute pot to card-carrying marijuana patients. Rhode Island launched a similar model, and Maine voters followed suit this week, voting to expand their ten-year-old marijuana law to include state-regulated dispensaries.
Could the New Mexico model work here? Possibly -- or possibly not.
On one hand, the state-sanctioned nonprofit system could solve many of the headaches currently plaguing the local medical-marijuana scene. State oversight of the dispensaries could help calm concerns that these operations are essentially unregulated (they're probably the only place in the state where you can legally buy processed food products that involve no inspections whatsoever). Furthermore, by requiring dispensaries to be nonprofits, regulators would force their owners to prove, once and for all, that they are "in it for the patients." Those working for the right reasons would stick around -- and those in it just to make a buck (and all the side businesses tagging along) will slink away.
If only the solution were so simple. In reality, New Mexico's system, which was instituted by the state health department late last year, hasn't worked perfectly. According to a recent New York Times story, nearly two dozen nonprofit groups have applied for the new state license, but the health department refuses to release any information about them. That means other regulatory agencies have no access to the facilities and the community is still largely in the shadows.
There's also the conundrum of how to transplant this model wholesale onto a large and mature dispensary industry like Colorado's. Would the current for-profit shops, which now number in the three digits, be able to turn into nonprofits, or would everybody have to shut down and start again? Either way, it would be a long and arduous process, leaving marijuana patients in the lurch. According to a Santa Fe Reporter story, it's taken New Mexico authorities months to consider the handful of applications so far received. Imagine how long it would take the already-strapped Colorado health department to sign off on all the operations needed to satisfy the 15,000 or so Colorado patients clamoring for their meds.
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There are legal conundrums, too. Colorado is the only state where medical marijuana laws are enshrined as a constitutional amendment -- meaning it's very difficult to change them. The New Mexico model would be such a drastic change to what's in place here that it's possible the only way to institute it would be through another constitutional amendment. While state legislators could try to institute the system, they better be ready for dispensary owners, many of whom are doing quite well for themselves under the for-profit system, to fight them every step of the way.
And finally, even the New Mexico system would do nothing to solve the worrying situation that Colorado's medical-marijuana program is, at its heart, illegal. As the state Court of Appeals made clear last week, those who supply medical marijuana must do more than just provide pot to ensure the well-being of their patients. Even if the state begins licensing nonprofit dispensaries here, those operations still need to obtain marijuana -- either as seeds, clones or full-grown plants -- from somewhere else. In essence, there's no way everybody in the supply chain can provide for the well-being of every single patient. So does that mean the state, by condoning these dispensaries, would be involved in a crime? No one, it seems, knows the answer.
So there you go. The New Mexico model might help sooth some of Colorado's medical marijuana troubles -- but don't expect a magic bullet.