Ask a Stoner

Ask a Stoner, 4/20 edition: Pot critic William Breathes answers your cannabis queries

Amendment 64 may have legalized recreational marijuana in Colorado, but it also raised many new questions. We created Ask a Stoner to try to provide some answers. Here's our special 4/20 edition.

Dear Stoner: Who is in charge here? What's going on? Why can't I buy joints at 7-Eleven yet? We need answers, man!

Voters approved Amendment 64 on November 6, 2012, and Governor John Hickenlooper signed it into law on December 10, making it legal for adults 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and cultivate as many as three sprouts and three flowering plants at a time. It also became legal for adults to purchase marijuana at state-regulated stores. But in order for that to happen, the state has to create regulations to govern the recreational marijuana industry.

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Hickenlooper created a 24-member task force to look at the issue and come up with suggestions for the legislators who would draft the laws. After weeks of deliberation, at the end of February the task force released a sixteen-point plan covering everything from home cultivation to criminal law to taxation and — most important — the structure of the industry and regulatory model. That report was handed over to a special Joint Select Committee (no pun intended) of members of the Colorado House and Senate, who have to come up with proposals — and get them passed — before the 2013 legislative session ends May 8.

The committee wrapped up its work on April 8 and announced that it would be condensing the task force's recommendations into three bills: one comprising all of the unanimously agreed-upon rules, a second comprising all of the majority recommendations that may still need some ironing out in the legislature, and a third related to all of the tax-policy questions.

If things go as planned — and there are still three more weeks in this legislative session — the Department of Revenue should begin processing applications for retail operations by October 1, 2013, with a ninety-day time limit, so January 2014 is likely to be the earliest you'll see a marijuana store in Colorado. Local municipalities that haven't banned marijuana businesses will have until October 1 of this year to get their own licensing processes in place.

Dear Stoner: Who is going to play big brother in this whole legal-weed thing?

Amendment 64 calls for the Department of Revenue to handle regulating the new industry. The most likely scenario is that the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division will add recreational marijuana to its purview. That's despite a recent state audit that documented the MMED's record of reckless spending and financial mismanagement: During nineteen straight months of losses, it spent $2.3 million on expensive SUVs, computers and office furniture — including $4,200 alone on four chairs.

Meanwhile, the DOR still has to handle about half of the 1,024 dispensary, edibles-kitchen and grow applications it's received since 2010, when the MMED officially began processing them per state law. It took an average of 23 months to license the 400 or so applications that have actually gone through the entire process. And the DOR has also dropped the ball on several regulatory fronts, including background-checking dispensary owners. Department of Revenue chief Barbara Brohl told the Joint Select Committee that the majority of the division's problems stem from underfunding, hence the need for a sales tax of up to 15 percent on recreational marijuana. According to Brohl, predictability in funding would help stabilize the department and get things up to speed.

Despite concerns raised by the audit, the committee still seems to prefer this model, which was suggested by the task force; the only suggested change is that the DOR be required to report annually to the House and Senate finance committees.

Dear Stoner: Where is all of the ganja in the shops going to come from? Would I be able to just be a commercial grower and sell to any dispensary I want?

In the legislative committee, another contentious debate involved whether each marijuana store had to grow its own supply. That is currently the case with the medical marijuana industry, where dispensaries have to grow at least 70 percent of the medicine they sell in a system known as vertical integration; the remaining 30 percent can be purchased from another center or grow operation. The legislature approved that model in 2010's House Bill 1284, which set up rules for the medical marijuana industry. But critics of vertical integration say that if Amendment 64 were truly designed to regulate marijuana like alcohol, the system should resemble the alcohol industry, which has manufacturers, distributors and retailers.

Business owners and lobbyists are split. Michael Elliot, who's with the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, which reportedly represents up to fifty medical marijuana businesses in the state, told Westword that vertical integration is a safety measure to make sure that marijuana isn't being diverted out the back door of grow operations that can't make ends meet selling through legal channels. Elliot also argues that systems like vertical integration have kept federal interference in the medical marijuana industry to a minimum.