Letters from U.S. Attorney John Walsh tell owners of 23 medical marijuana centers that they must stop doing business within 45 days at their present location. MMJ lawyer Warren Edson says shops targeted in Denver will be able to move, but strict federal rules governing distances from schools will make finding new homes mighty tough.
If Walsh's missives had gone out a couple of months ago or more, Edson says MMC entrepreneurs would have been out of luck -- but then, "new city council rules passed to allow center owners to change location in Denver, as well as to change ownership in businesses.
"The long and the short of it is, they can move" in Denver, he goes on. "But they have to abide by the distance requirements set by local government and MMED" -- the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division, the state agency that oversees the industry in the state. "And keep in mind that Denver isn't all of Colorado. These letters are going to hit the whole state, and each town has slightly different rules about whether you can move and how to move."
Denver center owners face other complications, too. Arguably the biggest involves the ways in which the federal government measures the 1,000 feet distance between schools and dispensaries. The U.S. Attorneys Office contends that the 23 operations that received letters are within that distance, but Edson says the federal government uses a different calculation than does Denver. "The city measures 1,000 feet as a pedestrian walks, from the front door of the center to the property line of the school," he points out. "But the feds count from property line to property line as the crow flies."
For that reason, he explains, "a center may be okay under Denver's rules, but property line to property line as the crow flies, they're not okay. So we have a local government deciding what distance requirements are appropriate and federal government deciding they know better and overriding those requirements."
Another area of concern: While Walsh's letter only cites schools, similar documents sent to medical marijuana businesses in California by U.S. Attorneys there required that shops be 1,000 feet from schools and parks -- and Edson thinks any Colorado MMC owner forced to move should stay 1,000 feet away from the latter, too, in case Walsh adds that restriction in the future. His blunt analysis: "If they add parks, oh shit."
Page down to learn about the shrinking options. Options for new perches would shrink quickly if MMCs had to be at least 1,000 feet from both schools and parks. "If you get out a Denver map -- get out the old circles from the original weed map -- you're not going to find many locations, period, that are available to move to because of distance requirements. If you factor in the possibility that a landlord might not be crazy about renting to a dispensary, there might not be more than a dozen spaces available in the city."
And the situation would grow tighter still if the U.S. Attorneys Office starts going as well as dispensaries. "Where are most of the grows in Denver?" Edson asks. "Along the Platte River. And what are along the Platte? Parks. So if they include grows in their next wave, it's going to be crazy-devastating."
Last week, Edson told our William Breathes that dispensaries might survive federal scrutiny because of a quirk of Colorado law. "Back in the '80s, during the time of the Drug Free School Zone stuff, they created a model penal code of what they wanted the states to adopt or risk losing federal funding. And in 1992, Colorado incorporated it in a special offender statute that talks about drug offenders and enhanced penalties, and details the 1,000-feet-from-school issue. But Colorado appears to be unique in that our legislature limited that enhancement crime to areas that are open to the general public or government-sponsored housing.
"There's an exception for crack houses, but even then, the language refers to a 'dwelling.' So you can argue that a center isn't open to the general public -- only to people with licenses. And a grow certainly isn't open to the general public."
Today, however, Edson concedes that "we're not sure if that's a defense in court. Nothing's been a defense in court in California."
The ripple effects of the federal decision will strike local and state governments especially hard, Edson believes. "Nobody's taken into account that MMED is licensing everybody up for a new year. Now, should these folks be dropping $20,000 to $40,000 in licensing fees to the city and state without knowing if they're going to get a letter in the next month? And I can't find one example of a minor who doesn't have a red card who was able to obtain medical marijuana product directly from a center. Not one -- and there appears to have been 600-plus incidents of that kind of thing at liquor stores last year."
That's just one more reason why Edson says "I'm disappointed that our elected officials aren't getting more involved in the distance debate, and the appropriateness of the federal government overriding our distances. For me, the theme is the federal government deciding they know better than local citizens."
Follow and like the Michael Roberts/Westword Facebook page.
More from our Marijuana archive: "Med. marijuana patients must wait 6 months to reapply if applications found to be 'fraudulent,'"
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.