Brian Vicente on new medical marijuana bill: If legislators don't take patient access into account, "the people will hold them responsible"

Yesterday, we offered a sneak preview of a medical marijuana ballot initiative assembled by the advocacy group Sensible Colorado. That amendment will be formally made public by Sensible Colorado executive director Brian Vicente during an 11 a.m. press event on the west steps of the Capitol.

But even as Vicente prepares for this announcement, he concedes that he sees some positives in the new medical marijuana bill put forward by Representative Tom Massey -- and he'd be willing to forgo the push to put his measure on the November ballot if problematic aspects of the bill are addressed.

And if not? Vicente says, "The people will hold them responsible."

About the bill, Vicente says that in many respects, "I think Massey is on the right track. We salute his attempt to regulate dispensaries, or, as he's calling them, centers. Establishing a uniform application and taxation system for these entities makes sense, and we're generally supportive of that sort of thing.

"There's also some interesting stuff in there where the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment would request that the federal government reschedule marijuana from schedule one to schedule two, which suggests that the debate is getting more educated about what's occurring. And I also think there's some support for an indigent fee waiver, which we're a big supporter of. We've been supporting that with the doctor-regulation bill as well."

Another major change involves the transition from a for-profit to a nonprofit model. Surprisingly, this shift isn't a red flag for Vicente.

"From a patient-access standpoint, we're not overly concerned with the corporate structure of dispensaries," he allows. "Nonprofits can serve patient needs and provide medical marijuana in the same way that LLCs and other corporate models can. If the nonprofit model will have more of a focus on the wellness aspects and there's not quite as much profit involved, we're not concerned with that outcome. We believe dispensaries will continue to exist and serve patients regardless of their corporate structure."

Likewise, he's not opposed to the concept of rules about dispensary signage.

"I think that's an area where compromise is possible, because Sensible Colorado generally supports more wellness-oriented signage," he notes. "I think some of the flashing marijuana leaves are actually detrimental to our cause. They imply that this is recreational and anger members of the community -- and I don't think that's what a wellness center should be doing. We even thought about running a 'sensible signage' campaign, where we'd have dispensaries sign on and voluntarily agree to abide by certain standards of signage. So we're willing to talk about what kind of signage would be more appropriate and welcomed in the community."

At the same time, though, Vicente acknowledges that the bill sports "some concerning provisions," with that list topped by language that "allows localities to ban dispensaries or limit their number to zero."

This is a particularly contentious matter. Note the case in which a judge told Centennial officials they couldn't ban dispensaries within city limits -- yet the community has continued its efforts to prevent the complaining operation from reopening.

To Vicente, the issue is simple.

"Our position is that patients have a constitutionally protected right to access medical marijuana," he says. "And the constitution is valid in every corner of the state. It makes policy sense and legal sense to allow sick people in Greeley to have access to their medicine in their community.

"Aurora currently has a ban on dispensaries, and we get calls from cancer patients there who essentially have to bus to Denver to get their doctor-recommended medicine, which is disgusting. Apparently sick people in Aurora are viewed as second-class citizens. They don't have the same constitutionally protected right to access their medicine."

With that in mind, "we'll be fighting that provision in every way possible. It's a significant weakening of the law that would certainly be subject to litigation. But in the meantime, we're hoping to work with the legislature to make them realize people get sick in every corner of the state, and all of them should have safe and legal access to their medicine."

Other objections:

"If this bill passes and a doctor was disciplined or prevented from writing recommendations, their patients that they'd already signed for would be automatically revoked due to no fault of their own. I don't think that's a workable provision. It would punish patients for the actions of a doctor, and I think that would be damaging.

"And they're also attempting to codify the principle that if a patient names a caregiver, that patient should not be able to grow their own medicine. That's disturbing to us. The general principle now is that a patient can designate a caregiver and then both parties can grow and possess medicine. That hasn't been fleshed out in the courts yet, but that's the general legal consensus, and it makes sense. If a person designates a caregiver, the patient doesn't give up the right to possess medicine. Why should they give up the right to grow their own?"

A ban on on-site consumption also troubles him.

"We think the issue of consumption should be left up to the individual wellness center or dispensary. Patients often derive great benefit from being able to use medicine with the help of an expert caregiver, who can explain how to use a vaporizer or what this strain or that strain is good for. We would prefer to have that as an option for sick people."

Many of these concerns are addressed in Vicente's ballot initiative. According to him, "it would direct the legislature to codify and set up a licensing and application system for both dispensaries and also medical marijuana production facilities or grow sites. We've found that often the production facilities are subjected to prosecution and are then left out to dry. But they're a crucial part of the supply chain and should be protected as well, so patients can get their medicine.

"The application sets out some basics concerning safety requirements and labeling, and it also states specifically that both these facilities shouldn't be encumbered in the number of patients that they can provide for. I believe the Massey bill limits or caps the number of plants a facility can have, and that's not something we feel is in the patients' interest or constitutionally viable."

The amendment "will also give a large degree of control to localities to govern time, place and manner issues of signage and location. But it doesn't allow localities to ban dispensaries. That's a point we're not wavering on."

Getting such a proposal on the ballot won't be easy. Vicente says he needs to collect 75,000 signatures by July, and he doesn't plan to start rounding them up until April -- at which point he'll know if the legislature has been receptive to the medical marijuana community's recommendations about the bill. He calls the amendment "a backup plan" that he's willing to ditch -- "but if it looks like patient rights aren't at the forefront of the discussion and safe access isn't being properly addressed, we will move forward with the initiative.

"The people are with us on this issue," he adds. "The people believe patients should have access to medical marijuana, and the legislature needs to know that if we put this on the ballot, there's a strong likelihood we will win."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts