Chris Romer on medical marijuana residency rules, blocking felons and keeping prices down

Senator Chris Romer played an enormous role in Colorado's groundbreaking medical marijuana legislation. With the August 1 deadline for dispensary owners for file applications just days away, he feels pride in what the laws have already accomplished even as he's attempting to clear up confusion about controversial residency rules.

As you'll recall, Romer was the main sponsor of SB 109, a bill intended to clarify the relationship between doctors and medical marijuana patients, as well as a co-sponsor of HB 1284, the main MMJ regulatory measure, overseen by Representative Tom Massey. HB 1284's other co-sponsors were Representative Ken Summers and Senator Nancy Spence.

The final version of HB 1284 included an amendment submitted by Romer requiring Colorado residency for two years -- "and there's been some debate from rule-making and the Attorney General's office as to whether that relates to owners, managers and employees," he says.

The answer?

"I've talked to Representative Massey, and he and I are in concurrence that it was the intent of the bill's sponsors that the focus would be on owners, or on managers and employees who have an equity ownership stake -- not on typical W-2 or 1099 employees."

In other words, folks from elsewhere can work the front counter at a dispensary without having to wait two years to do so.

Romer says he hasn't yet had a chance to huddle with Summers and Spence on this topic, and doesn't want to speak for them -- "although I'd be highly surprised if they had a different understanding about than that of Representative Massey and myself. Our goal was for the Colorado community to be the first group to come through this process, and that if somebody wants to participate in the industry, they need to establish residency. We need to get to know them, and God bless them, eighteen months or two years from now, they can have equity ownership and participate.

"We were concerned about inappropriate capital pouring in from the East and West Coast and people from there hoping to play a big role in this industry. Our goal was to keep those potential bad apples out. But that intent was clearly related to ownership and capital, not legitimate people who wanted to move here to work in an industry that's now successfully being regulated, and who'll be working for a paycheck."

He adds that he and Massey plan to send a letter confirming this stance to the Department of Revenue staffers overseeing the rule-writing for HB 1284 -- and if Summers and Spence agree, their names will be included, too.

Meanwhile, the impending license application deadline has increased chatter among MMJ industry types that the number of dispensaries could be reduced by even more than the 50 percent total Romer predicted late last year. Romer doesn't know about that -- but he feels the laws are having the sort of impact he'd anticipated, particularly when it comes to keeping folks with serious criminal records out of the business. And according to a 9News investigation shared in today's Denver Post, there are plenty of them.

"The intent of the bill was clearly to get control of the wild west," he says. "The requirement that people not have felonies for the past five years, or drug-related felonies period, was an important part of the bill, and I knew that would affect the overall number of dispensaries. And the bills' sponsors view that as a positive. I still believe there'll be an initial reduction of approximately 50 percent. But the market demand will be redefined under SB 109 -- and the reduction of patient fraud will determine long-term how many medical marijuana dispensaries or centers there are."

Regarding the news about how many people with felonies will be prevented from working in the legitimate medical marijuana industry, he says, "The numbers in the Post confirmed that we had a pretty good intuitive sense about that."

At the same time, he's pleased that the sort of price increases MMJ advocates predicted would accompany regulation haven't taken place as of yet. Indeed, he's heard anecdotally that costs have remained stable or dipped -- "not dramatically, but they're trending downward." That doesn't surprise him.

"As an economist, I always believed the free market would determine price," he notes. "It seems like the Brian Vicentes and the sky-is-falling people who said we were going to drive up the prices so much that people couldn't afford it seem to have missed the mark.

"That's an early analysis," he concedes. "But I think Representative Massey and I will be vindicated for cleaning up the industry without drive up the price and affordability for those who need it and truly are chronically ill."

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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