Everything you wanted to know about recent medical-marijuana developments -- but were afraid to ask

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State medical-marijuana rules have always been ridiculously vague and confusing, leading to the riotous growth of the local dispensary industry. Last week, the Colorado Court of Appeals weighed in on the matter, and this morning the Colorado Board of Health chimed in, too. Now, lo and behold, state medical-marijuana rules are still ridiculously vague and confusing.

To help sort through the muddle, here's the CliffsNotes version of what's gone down lately with Colorado's medical-marijuana laws, as well as a breakdown of the challenges and questions facing those attempting forge a workable solution to our wild west of weed.

As most people know, Colorado voters legalized medical marijuana in 2000 with the passage of Amendment 20. But that law didn't say how, specifically, marijuana patients should get their weed -- just that they could designate a "primary caregiver" who could provide it to them. In the ensuing years, an increasing number of people took the caregiver concept to mean that they could open a dispensary operation where they, as caregivers, could sell marijuana to as many different patients as they wanted. Soon, a supply-chain model evolved, in which some caregivers would cultivate the medicine and sell it to other caregivers who were running dispensaries.

On July 20, 2009, the Colorado Board of Health considered a rule that would have dealt a major blow to that model: limiting each caregiver to helping only five patients. In the face of overwhelming opposition at the meeting, the health board nixed that suggestion. However, it also made a small but important change to the marijuana rules already on the books.

Before then, a caregiver had to be someone with "significant responsibility for managing the well-being of a patient," which, according to the rules, meant helping them with daily activities or arranging medical care, as well as providing them with medical marijuana. Now, a caregiver could be anyone who helped a patient with daily activities or medical care OR provided them with marijuana.

It was a major victory for the medical-marijuana scene. Not only had the state essentially signed off on the dispensaries. Now, the only thing a person had to do, apparently, to be protected as a caregiver was to provide a marijuana to a patient. Before that point, many dispensary owners required patients to contact the state and designate someone at the operation as their primary caregiver before they'd be allowed to shop there. But after the change, most dispensary owners operated under the assumption that their customers designated them as a primary caregiver just by stopping by to purchase weed. No wonder the dispensary industry has since gone gangbusters.

Last week, however, the Colorado Court of Appeals shot down this model when it upheld the conviction of Stacy Clendenin, a Longmont resident who argued that the 44 marijuana plants police found in her home in 2006 were for medical-marijuana patients, some of whom she hadn't actually met. In his decision, Judge Robert Hawthorne found that "a person must do more to manage the well-being of a patient who has a debilitating medical condition than merely supply marijuana."

At that point, the Board of Health had a problem on its hands: The court had just ruled the definition of a caregiver it passed this past July was illegal. That's why the board held an emergency meeting this morning, where they voted unanimously to strike from their rules the definition of what "significant responsibility for managing the well-being of a patient" means. They didn't happen to propose an alternative definition, however. That will presumably have to wait until the board's December 16 meeting.

Confusing? You bet. Here's what it all means for the medical marijuana scene... possibly:

  • Dispensaries may become more holistic. Many of the higher-end dispensaries already offer a variety of services, including massage, acupuncture and support meetings. To ensure they meet the appeals court's demand that they "do more to manage the well-being of a patient," other dispensary owners will likely do so, too -- or they could risk getting shut down.
  • Medical marijuana growers are screwed. While growers are supplying medicine to dozens if not hundreds people, they're no longer considered caregivers unless they provide other services to each and every one of these patients. That's an impossible task. The job of growing all that medicine could pass to dispensary owners, but many of them might not be able to handle managing both a storefront and farm. There's also concern that dispensaries that double as a large-scale grow facility could become robbery targets.
  • No more open-door dispensary policy? Judge Hawthorne seemed to poke a huge hole in the "walk-in-the-door-and-I'm-your-caregiver" rule that prevails these days at most dispensaries. Now, in order to buy your meds, you might first have to let the state know where, exactly, you plan on shopping.
  • The state's entire medical marijuana model is illegal. That's right: Thanks to the Clendenin decision, the whole shebang doesn't seem to stand up to scrutiny. For example, even if someone just wants to become the primary caregiver for an ailing relative, he or she still has to buy weed or seeds or clones from someone else. Even if that supplier is willing to do other things to manage the well-being of the patient to qualify as a caregiver, there's still the matter of the supplier's supplier. The sequence goes one forever -- and there's no way to make everybody involved a caregiver to the original patient. Unless every caregiver in the state finds a way track down marijuana plants growing in the wild, parts of the system are going to be against the law.

So what's a well-meaning marijuana patient to do? Beats us. The Board of Appeals will probably be considering a new caregiver definition at its December 16 hearing -- a meeting that's sure to be just as packed and volatile as its other pot discussions. Meanwhile, State Senator Chris Romer has said he wants to clarify regulations by introducing a medical-marijuana bill next year.

If either of these attempts manages to fix the medical-marijuana mess, we'll be the first to raise a four-foot bong in celebration. Until then, medicate responsibly.

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