Medical marijuana amendment shredded by lawmaker after confrontation with advocate

Passions were aflame in the medical marijuana community yesterday, with both a department of health MMJ advisory committee meeting and a judiciary committee hearing on cleanup bill HB 1043 stirring controversy. Now, we learn Representative Jerry Sonnenberg actually tore up a 1043 amendment after a verbal set-to with advocate Miguel Lopez.

Let's start with Representative Sonnenberg's recollections of the incident.

According to Sonnenberg, he had drafted an amendment to HB 1043 that "would have excluded the use of video tapes or recording devices in medical marijuana dispensaries" -- an aspect of the bill that MMJ attorney Rob Corry described as intrusive and Orwellian in a post published last month. "It's a liberty thing for me... an invasion of our privacy," Sonnenberg maintains.

After drafting the amendment, Sonnenberg says he followed his usual procedure by sharing it with stakeholders on all sides of a particular issue to get their feedback. But when he was doing so with law-enforcement representatives, a camera operator who seemed to him to be affiliated with Lopez began recording the conversation. "I said, in a very calm voice, 'Could you please not video me while I'm having these discussions?'" Sonnenberg recalls.

In response, Sonnenberg says both the camera operator and Lopez, a pro-marijuana legalization gubernatorial candidate in 2010, as well as an organizer of events like the Mile High NORML Cannabis Rally, objected. "They said they didn't have to," Sonnenberg notes, "and I said, 'I know you don't have to. I'm just asking you to.'"

When Lopez didn't back down, Sonnenberg invited him to talk over the matter in his office, and they moved into a hallway. En route, Sonnenberg "said, 'I'm trying to help here' -- and that's when he really blew up. So I said, 'Fine,' and tore up the amendment and dumped it in a trash can."

Sonneberg then told a lobbyist from a pro-marijuana organization -- he declines to identify her -- "that I wasn't going to run the amendment. She said, 'Why?' And I said, 'It's apparent they don't need my help.' She said, 'Tell me who you talked to,' and I pointed him out. And she went out to try to have a discussion with these people, saying, 'Do you understand what you've done?' And Miguel spit on her."

Somewhere in the midst of all this, state troopers were called to intervene, and while Sonnenberg didn't personally witness what took place at that point, he says one officer subsequently gave him a card on which he wrote that Lopez had been kicked out of the Capitol.

Lopez's take on what happened is notably different from Sonnenberg's -- but there are some similarities. "We were asking for transparency, and one of the representatives ripped up a bill in front of us and threw it in the trash," he says. Afterward, he says he was confronted by "one of Josh Stanley's lobbyist thugs" -- Stanley being the owner of Budding Health dispensary and a former principal in Coloradans for Medical Marijuana Regulation, an advocacy organization that was shaken by finger pointing and assorted accusations of financial impropriety in May 2010. Betty Aldworth attempted to revive CMMR during the second half of last year, but she recently closed down the organization after deciding that its reputation was beyond saving.

Interview requests have been forwarded to Stanley. When he gets back to us, we'll update this post.

According to Lopez, the lobbyist "started screaming that I had messed things up -- messed up things for their plan. And Josh Stanley began instigating name-calling in the hallway." At that point, he says, "the state troopers came, and they took sides with him. But I calmed down. I was not banned from the capitol. I was not escorted out" -- and he makes no mention of spitting on anyone.

In Lopez's view, Sonnenberg's decision to shred the amendment "was an amazing display of what we suspected all along -- that big business is coming in to try to monopolize the industry and make it so we don't have fair trade... They're neglecting to hear the people's voice. All we want is fair, common-sense equality for all business people, including small caregivers and people who got squeezed out from the five-year felony rule. But now, all the big players who are already in there don't want the little guys to have the opportunity to come in and organize their businesses."

With this incident behind him, will Sonnenberg revive the amendment? In a word: no. "They made it very clear they don't need my help," he says. And while he stresses that "I believe in personal freedom and believe these video recordings would indeed be an intrusion on those personal freedoms," he's not ready to commit to supporting such an amendment if it's submitted by another lawmaker -- at least not until he's had a chance to read it over.

"I do take some responsibility in this," he allows. "I should have left it alone. I shouldn't have tried to explain to him that I was trying to help." As he sees it, "confrontation on either side is not a good thing."

More from our Marijuana archive: "Medical marijuana HB 1250 bill would outlaw MMJ edibles: Read it here."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts