In May, Governor John Hickenlooper signed several marijuana bills he said were "charting new territory" -- so new that emergency rules have been issued as placeholders until permanent regulations can be written and approved. But one of the people expected to be central to this process -- Laura Harris, head of the renamed Marijuana Enforcement Division -- has announced that she's retiring effective August 1. One activist fears the fallout of her decision could make an already messy process even more potentially chaotic.
"For those folks who are advising this industry or are part of this industry, the timing is poor to awful," says marijuana attorney Warren Edson. "You've got emergency rules, a new [recreational marijuana] industry being born, a relatively new [medical marijuana] industry being tweaked to run more efficiently, and not a whole lot of time to do it."
Meanwhile, Edson continues, "you've got the state and a bunch of counties and cities looking for some kind of leadership about how to adopt all of this. And now we've arguably lost one of the most accessible government heads of the industry -- someone who's been out there saying, 'Here's what we're going to do.'"
No question that Harris has been the target of criticism, particularly due to a damning audit of the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division. Released in March, the document (on view below) blasts the MMED for ineffective oversight, as well as poor management of funds exemplified by this graphic showing nineteen consecutive months of net losses during fiscal years 2011 and 2012, much of it on Harris's watch; she took over in late 2011.
But when it came to communicating with MMJ stakeholders, Edson gives Harris high marks. He calls a January meeting to review proposed changes to medical marijuana regulation as surprisingly pleasant, with Harris proving open to discussion about proposals such as "removing live-feed cameras from dispensaries and simplifying the manifest process so the industry wasn't having to send quite as many documents and the state wasn't having to deal with receiving so many documents," he recalls.
Likewise, he praises Harris for considering what he sees as some common-sense alterations in rules, such as "moving part of the hash-making process from MIPs [Marijuana Infused Products] to OPCs [Optional Premises Cultivation].... Currently the OPCs -- the grows -- can only use ice, water and screens when making hash, but when you get into BHO or extraction, those are under the MIPs. Leaving them in both would be a massive change, but it's also kind of fair."
With Harris on her way out, however, there's no telling whether her successor will follow her lead on these or other matters. And plenty of more immediate issues have been left in limbo.
Continue for more about Marijuana Enforcement Division head Laura Harris's impending retirement, including multiple documents. Edson points to a section of House Bill 1317, the main recreational-marijuana law, that leaves plant counts for grows up to "the state licensing authority" -- but the emergency rules don't address the issue.
"How does that work if you don't have patients naming you as anything?" Edson asks. "Top-class licensees can serve 500 patients to infinity, but how does that relate to your plant count?"
The timetable for answering these questions is tight. "You'll have people voting on whether or not there's a resale or excise tax in November, everybody in the industry applying October 1 to move over [from medical to recreational sales], and cities looking for leadership," Edson points out. "So there's a big need to have somebody at MED who knows what's going on immediately -- because it's already the middle of July."
That brings up the question of Harris's successor. In Edson's view, "it'll be interesting to see who steps into that role. Either they'll come from in-house and hopefully know the intricacies of what's going on or be from the outside and have a wicked learning curve. They'll have to come up to speed in a very short period of time."
Look below to see HB 1317, the emergency rules issued earlier this month and the aforementioned audit.
More from our Marijuana archive: "Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division gets awful grade in auditor's report."
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.