Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

How medical marijuana regulations could turn the wild West into the mild, mild West

It's the wild, wild West," proclaims Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown, who's getting ready to give medical marijuana speculators a good, swift kick with his cowboy boot, to get them to toe whatever line the city decides to draw. Better that, he says, than kick them out of Denver altogether — as towns across the metro area have started to do.

Colorado's latest gold rush was well under way before the United States Justice Department announced that the feds would not prosecute users or providers in states where medical marijuana is legal. Barack Obama's campaign promise to undo the policies of the Bush administration had been enough to send people scrambling to Colorado, where voters had legalized medical marijuana back in 2000; the business got another push this summer when the Colorado Department of Health declined to rein in medical marijuana dispensaries by limiting the number of patients they could minister to. But it wasn't until the Justice Department's announcement last week that the boom exploded so loud that no one in the state could ignore it.

A day later, Greeley voted to ban dispensaries. Other towns across the metro area had already made similar moves — or are threatening to do so. And Brown, who had his eyes opened when three very respectable people came up to him at Western Fantasy, a fancy fundraiser, to talk about their potential dispensary investments, decided that something had to be done, and fast, since dispensaries are "the fastest-growing business in Denver," he says. "The first step is a common-sense business approach — how to properly regulate it. And I'm not a regulator type of guy." For starters, he suggests, Denver should look at such issues as hours of operation, signage, security, age and ID requirements, and where marijuana can be cultivated.

Then there's the matter of permitting and taxing. Denver could tax medical marijuana sales at 3.62 percent — or maybe go higher, in line with cigarette taxes. "Or maybe we do the alcohol route," Brown says, "compare it to a liquor license, an adult cabaret license." That way, the city could charge a $2,000 initial processing fee that would also cover an FBI check on the dispensary owner's background.

At this point, Brown is considering all the possibilities. He's been talking with police officers, the city attorney, dispensaries, patients. And next Monday at 4 p.m., he'll be talking with his fellow councilmembers at an operations meeting, briefing them on what he's discovered, suggesting what directions the city might want to take. "The feds have said they're not going to control it, so we think it's our job," he says. "The timetable is pretty short."

Over at the Capitol, state senator Chris Romer is also looking at the calendar. "Once the Obama administration said that they're not prosecuting, boom, the gates flew open," he says. "This is not something where we can sit on our hands."

So last week he raised his, announcing that he'd be working on a proposal for the next legislative session that would end the patchwork of rules that cities are now putting into place. "You need a regulatory and business model that follows, as best we know it, what the voters wanted us to implement," Romer says. And what the voters wanted, he notes, was a "robust" support of medical marijuana. After all, Colorado is the only state where voters decided to put their support in the state constitution.

Republican Tom Massey has already agreed to co-sponsor the legislation, and so Romer, too, is talking to everyone he can. "Our job as legislators is to actually listen first and figure out what the problem is, and then write the bill after we understand the problem. We don't have the evidence yet."

Not the hard evidence. But they do have anecdotal evidence. Romer has been getting letter after letter from patients who rely on medical marijuana. Patients like Janis Beecher, for example, who suffers from osteoarthritis and wrote:

"I have been a Colorado resident since 1968 and a medical marijuana user for some time. I am alarmed by the ease in which I obtained my permit. I am equally alarmed at the prospect of the dispensaries going up in places where they don't belong simply because there are no good regulations in place. I can see this giving the medical marijuana community a black eye, as some of our fellow citizens are more concerned with the almighty dollar than the safety and comfort of their neighbors.... I have rarely gotten involved with anything in my community for years, but I feel this is something that we all need to help along to make sure that it's a workable plan for everyone, because the benefits of medical marijuana for so many people...well, we can't just let it slip backwards at this point."

And for Romer, like so many others, that's the bottom line. No matter what regulations Denver might adopt, other cities might adopt, we can't slip backwards. "Lots of people will be grumpy about this bill," he says. "Hopefully, the patients will be the least grumpy. Everyone has something they don't like, but everyone agrees they have to do something. Doing nothing is not an option."

One way or another, the wild, wild West is about to become a mild, mild West.

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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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