Amendment 64: Should the state run commercial shops for recreational marijuana?

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Another controversial question has emerged at Governor John Hickenlooper's task force on Amendment 64, which legalizes small amounts of pot for adult use: Should the state operate commercial establishments for recreational marijuana? The group, which will ultimately present policy recommendations, hasn't made determinations yet, but the debate is likely to be contentious, since a state system would nix private businesses.

The idea was first discussed at the "regulatory framework" working group of the governor's Amendment 64 Implementation Task Force, whose membership was announced when he signed the measure into law last month.

With A64 official, it is now legal for adults to possess small amounts and smoke marijuana in private. But the legislature still has to establish rules for how pot will ultimately be regulated and sold.

The commercial component is a central consideration of the task force and one that has raised questions about whether retail marijuana shops should be limited to Colorado residents.

The idea of possible state-operated recreational marijuana dispensaries was raised yesterday at a full meeting of the task force, which met for the first time last month and has divided into sub-groups. At this stage of the process, the task force has only done preliminary work intended to pinpoint the central issues.

In a state-run system, an agency "would be responsible for owning and operating the stores," explains Kevin Bommer, deputy director of the Colorado Municipal League and a member of the task force.

Bommer says there wasn't too much debate on the matter at the full task force meeting yesterday, but more concrete recommendations will likely be made in the coming weeks. He adds that the concept is under consideration in Washington state, which also legalized marijuana in November, which is partly why Colorado is also exploring this option.

State-run operations could function in different ways, but such a system would probably negate private dispensaries -- a different model than the one established for medical marijuana centers in Colorado.

"If the regulatory working group comes back and says that this is an option that is available under Amendment 64....then we'll look at it under that light," says Bommer, a member of the local authority and control working group.

Continue for commentary from one task force member who supports the idea. State-run pot shops would have the support of at least one task force member: Christian Thurstone, an addiction expert who generally opposes legalization because he believes it increases youth smoking risks.

State-run operations, he argues, would not have the same profit motives as private commercial establishments -- which, he says, would limit underage smoking.

"We know that tobacco companies specifically were targeting young people with their advertising," he says. "We want to avoid that happening with marijuana."

Thurstone argues that with alcohol and tobacco, profits largely come from "heavy users" who often start at young ages, thereby giving businesses incentives to target them.

"If you're really profit-driven, you really have to have a way to develop these new users and get them while they're young," says Thurstone, who is not on the regulatory working group.

"I think it's worth looking into that to see if that might be a way to really tighten this up, so teenagers aren't using," he says.

A64 legalizes pot for adults 21 and older and supporters say legalization allows for better regulation of underage use.

But in Thurstone's view, the actions of alcohol and tobacco industries show that legalization of marijuana could create similar private industries that ultimately increase illegal use by minors.

"We don't want to make that mistake again," he says.

It's still early in the task force process, but Thurstone says he expects a range of opposition to this kind of idea -- from individuals who would want to open private shops to others who believe in limited government.

"You always gotta have hope," he says, "Although I think it's probably a long shot."

Here's the full handout from the regulatory framework group, which includes mention of state-run retail shops. Regulatory Framework

More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: $1K reward in dispensary robbery by "dick mouth" who stole low-cost pipes, clones"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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