Chris Romer's medical marijuana ride-along -- complete with a dispensary robbery

At around 9 p.m. on Friday night, a former member of the military who uses medical marijuana to deal with pain from a back injury, stopped at the 24/7 Health Care Center, at 3535 Walnut Street.

Upon his arrival, he saw an unmarked police car parked in the lot. Nearby were two people -- Denver Police Sergeant Tony Foster and state senator Chris Romer, who were talking to an employee at the front door. When the veteran stepped from his vehicle, he says Romer asked him, "Are you the owner?"

Nope -- just a surprised patient whose subsequent transaction was observed by Romer and Foster. "I'll bet that's the first time he bought he quarter-ounce of pot with a police officer and a state senator in the room," Romer says, chuckling.

Turns out Romer was on a ride-along to check out dispensaries open in the evenings -- one of which had been robbed shortly before his arrival.

The crime took place at Cure Therapeutics, 877 Federal Boulevard. As Romer understands it, "four armed robbers had walked in and taken half a pound of pot. There were three employees, but only one was on the site at the time, and all of them admitted to being under the influence of marijuana, which made it a little challenging for police to take a credible police report."

The DPD confirms that the case is still being actively investigated, and no arrests have been made thus far.

Nonetheless, this visit provided a noteworthy start for Romer's dispensary tour.

"We visited five dispensaries that night -- four that the officer picked and one that I picked," Romer says.

The senator's goal was to get some background on the question of "whether the security issues in dispensaries should or shouldn't be something the state should govern, or if they should be left to local control. And we're also proposing in our bill" -- that would be regulatory legislation he's co-sponsoring with, among others, Representative Tom Massey -- "that dispensaries close at 7 p.m. So I wanted to take a look at dispensaries that stay open later than that."

Hence, Romer and Foster headed to "three dispensaries over by the Coliseum, all within about three blocks of each other, and two of which were open, or semi-open, 24 hours a day," the former recalls. "There were customers in both of them, and as I always do, I identify who I am and let them know that we're not there to investigate them. I'm just there to learn."

Among the things Romer witnessed at 24/7 was the distrust that remains between dispensaries and law enforcement. The employee who was communicating with Romer and Foster when the veteran arrived didn't let the officer and the state senator inside until after getting clearance from the owner -- something that irked Sergeant Foster, Romer says.

Once everyone went inside, the employee headed to the back room with the veteran, who says Romer "must have asked the guy forty questions -- everything from where he's growing to how much THC is in their butter to everything in between. The guy kept saying, 'Let me finish with my patient,' and he'd be quiet for five seconds and then fire off another question.'"

In addition, Romer quizzed the veteran about his condition and his relationship with the Veterans Administration, which will not provide medical marijuana to those under its care. The senator sees such outreach as a way to build trust between the medical marijuana community and government/law enforcement.

As part of that effort, Romer suggested that he and Foster stop at Peace and Medicine Center, 2042 Arapahoe, a dispensary that he thinks is doing things in the right way.

"Some of the senior staff was there," Romer says, "and we spent about a half an hour with them, talking about security and things like that. And afterward, Sergeant Foster complemented me. He told me, 'I now see there are operators who can do this well -- that there's a safe way to do this."

As Romer points out, the dispensaries he perused on Friday weren't the first he'd checked out. He guesses that he's now been inside more than a dozen such enterprises, and this experience has helped him firm up some of his regulatory ideas.

"I believe hours of operation is an issue that intermingles with security," he allows, "and I'm worried that operations open past 7 p.m. are a security risk. So I feel this is something we at the state level should do -- to say that centers should be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m."

On top of that, Romer is "really drawing down on the issue of vertical integration" -- meaning a requirement that centers grow a relatively high percentage of their own product rather than obtain it from other sources. "Of the five dispensaries we visited, it was relatively clear that only one of the five would be able to pass the test of having 75 or 90 percent of their medical marijuana grown by their own vertically integrated group.

"I think vertical integration is good, although I think 90 percent is too high. And the reason I say that is it's going to raise the bar of professionalism for the industry. Just to set out a retail location and buy pot from whoever knocks at your door has led to some relatively poorly capitalized dispensaries that are not that professional in their security or their procedures. So I believe vertical integration is going to force a more professional group of people with a lot more real business experience to be in charge."

Beyond legislative particulars, Romer also wants to help stakeholders get comfortable working together, or at least coexisting.

"My mind is laser focused that we need law enforcement and the medical marijuana centers to feel like partners, not opponents. I want to get some of the more business-savvy owners together to meet with the Denver Police Department. The department is having to write entirely new rules and regulations, and they're waiting for our bill to complete those. I want to act as a broker with them, to help mitigate some of the concerns of the dispensary owners and the department."

To Romer, "part of my job is to get the facts on the ground and not just be lobbied at hearings" -- which is why he's hoping to do another ride-along like last Friday's in the near future.

If that happens, there'll probably be more encounters like the one recounted by the veteran, who calls the experience "pretty crazy," not to mention more time-consuming that he'd anticipated; his transaction probably took half an hour counting the ten minutes in the parking lot before the 24/7 employee let everyone inside.

As for Romer, he admits that "all four of us felt relatively awkward. But the scene was a validation of how far we've come -- and also an indication of how far we still have to go."

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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