Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Colorado politicos have all gone to pot!

I haven't thought about pot this much since eighth grade," says one Colorado official.

But over the past two months, as the medical marijuana industry has continued to boom in this state — inspiring a parallel boom in efforts to regulate the industry, with some municipalities proposing rules and others simply giving up and declaring a moratorium on new dispensaries — people who aren't the kind to smoke kind have suddenly been thinking a lot about pot.

Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown took a fact-finding trip to Los Angeles two weeks ago (using campaign money rather than the taxpayers' dime) to tour that city's dispensaries. While some have suggested that Brown slow down, he's determined to present the draft of a city ordinance regulating dispensaries next Wednesday, December 3, at the council's Safety Committee meeting. "We're offering them a license to operate in our city. They've got to be worthy of the public trust, and they have to live up to that," Brown says. "On Muscle Beach, the carnival-like atmosphere was disgraceful. I just saw that we have to move, and we have to move now. The L.A. city council has been working for two years, and they've been unable to come up with any kind of model. There are more than a thousand dispensaries there, more than there are Starbucks. It's just ridiculous. We don't want to become another L.A."

But while Brown is more than willing to propose rules regarding Denver dispensaries — licensing and background checks for owners, as well as distances from schools and other dispensaries — he's going to leave some decisions up to the state. His proposal won't get into the role of physicians, for example. And he's going to stay completely away from attempting to define "primary caregiver," a mess that's landed in the state's lap.

State senator Chris Romer, who's taken the lead in proposing legislation to regulate the medical marijuana business statewide, went on his own tour last week. He visited his first dispensary, Peace & Medicine in Denver, where he met a young vet who'd lost his legs in Iraq — and who changed Romer's mind about one part of his proposal. "It was very important for me to go there," he says. "Whether it's the community or the medicine, these vets think people at Peace & Medicine care more about them than the VA does." And so Romer, who's going to suggest that anyone under 25 who wants a medical-marijuana card be reviewed, now plans to exempt veterans from that requirement. But he has many, many more requirements he's considering, some that would affect dispensaries, others that would affect the growers themselves. "How do we want this to develop?" he asks. "Like Starbucks, or the neighborhood coffee shop? It all comes down to how big you want the grow model to be." To gather input on his proposed regulations, he hopes to hold a massive town hall meeting next week.

Ron Hyman, the Registrar of Vital Statistics, who collects all the applications for medical marijuana cards that come to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, knows just how much input Romer could get. By Monday of this week, he'd received 2,000 pieces of pot-related mail in November. "That's a record for me," he says. "And in October, I set another record. Every month this year has been a record. I'm getting complaints from the post office." He now gets two deliveries a day rather than one, though the state has not increased its staffing to meet the demand of all that mail. "The program was allocated one FTE when it was set up in the summer of 2001, and it's still at one FTE," Hyman says. As a result, the waiting period for a card has now stretched to fourteen weeks.

As Romer crafts his proposal, he tries to keep those patients in mind. "This is going to be the first place in the nation where we say 'game on,' with the first real medical marijuana bill in the country," he says. "That's what the voters wanted, and we're going to do it. We're going to have stable and methodical growth in this industry. We're going to do it right."

His father, the former Colorado governor, sometimes asks him, "What are you doing with your political career?" Romer says. And he tells him: "What 70 percent of the people want."

After two months and 250 applications, Westword has hired our medical marijuana reviewer. You'll find his bio, as well as up-to-the minute medical marijuana developments, in the Marijuana category of the Latest Word blog.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun

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