City Councilman Chris Nevitt: Tax medical marijuana -- and maybe regulate it like food

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Denver councilman Charlie Brown plans to share his ideas for proposed medical-marijuana regulations on November 18 -- and his already-expressed interest in taxing the stuff has been endorsed by fellow councilman Chris Nevitt. "Both of us strongly believe it should be taxed -- and I think that position is almost universally shared across the council," he says.

When it comes to other aspects of medical marijuana, however, Nevitt's views diverge from Brown's. "I don't think we should be anticipating outcomes out of fear," Nevitt says. "I think we should be dealing with the reality of the situation." With that in mind, he'd like the council to tackle the medical-marijuana issue in an orderly, business-like way, rather than reacting in knee-jerk fashion to questions about crime and the like that are mainly theoretical at this point. Moreover, he hopes officials will go beyond taxation to look at zoning issues and even the possibility of applying food-safety notions to edible ganja goods.

"When there's appropriate regulation at the state level, we should leave that to the state," says Nevitt, who touts state senator Chris Romer's goal of better establishing medical-marijuana rules of the road. "But there are also regulatory issues we deal with, the first of which is straight-forward taxation, which I think is a no brainer. I think we'll get that done pretty quickly. And the second is food safety. We regulate food safety on a local level as a county and we need to do that in this case, because medical marijuana often comes in food form, like brownies or cookies or whatever."

He illustrates the need for such regs like so: "When you go into a Starbucks and you buy a cookie, you can do so with confidence that the City and County of Denver has taken reasonable precautions to make sure you're not getting something made with bad butter or bad eggs, and that the cookie was baked in a clean environment, etc. And if you buy a marijuana cookie for medicinal purposes, you want to have the same confidence -- and now you don't, because we're not inspecting that. And we should."

Zoning questions are also important, in Nevitt's mind, but not because he thinks a medical-marijuana dispensary will automatically be a blight on any neighborhood, causing a rise in both crime and the presence of undesirables.

"This is one of the ways I differ from Charlie Brown," Nevitt allows. "I'm very empirically focused. If there's a problem, let's solve it. But I'm also a believer in efficient government, and that means not spending the taxpayer's resources trying to direct behavior to no purpose. If there is no crime problem, then regulating to solve a crime problem is money down a rat hole.

"If, on the other hand, there is a crime problem, and we start having problems with customers of marijuana dispensaries lighting up outside or wandering stoned onto school grounds or any of the other sort of nightmare scenarios that have been painted, Charlie Brown and I will probably end up in the same spot. But we should wait and see what the consequences actually are. It's possible these things will become a public nuisance that we need to regulate strictly. But until that happens, I'm not willing to spend taxpayer money and time putting up a whole mesh of regulation around something that may turn out to be entirely innocuous."

The potential licensing of dispensaries must be dealt with as well, Nevitt believes.

"We license a whole lot of other enterprises -- pharmacies, hair stylists, bars and restaurants, valet operators. And it could be that there's a reason for us to license medical-marijuana dispensaries as well -- and if there is, we'll do it... There might be a bonding requirement, where you'd have to post a bond or be bonded to a certain amount. You might have to pay a fee that covers the costs of processing the application and also covers the costs of inspection and enforcement."

An informal working group on the council will begin grappling with these topics soon, but that doesn't mean finding consensus will be a snap. Brown "wants to tightly regulate the industry in anticipation of problems he's convinced will emerge," Nevitt says, while he's more willing to look at the pipe as half full. Indeed, he makes many of the same arguments about marijuana's fiscal benefits that Sean McAllister did in a blog about Breckenridge's decriminalization of marijuana published earlier today.

"This is a growing industry, and our economy is a shambles," he points out. "And if we have any industry that's actually growing, I think we should be pretty happy about that. Now, we need to be cautious, because there's a lot about this industry we don't know -- but I don't think we should be quick on the trigger to cut it down when there's not a whole lot of other bright spots on the economic horizon right now.

"I represent some parts of the city, some commercial corridors, like South Broadway, that are really struggling. There's a relatively high level of vacancy, and relatively low lease rates -- so property owners are having trouble. We're doing everything we can to revitalize South Broadway with public investment, but private investment will make all the difference. And if it turns out that medical-marijuana dispensaries are good neighbors, and they don't create problems. I think we should welcome them, especially considering the revenue some of these dispensaries are expecting. If a dispensary does $2 million in business, that's almost 75 grand in tax receipts.

"How many jobs could we restore just from these kinds of businesses alone?" he asks, adding, "It's not an immaterial question."

But it is a controversial one.

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