Medical marijuana bill "regresses," says advocate Matt Brown -- but no need for "hysteria"

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Brown spent four hours at the legislature yesterday, and by the end, even he wasn't sure precisely where certain issues stood -- chiefly the so-called "local option."

Initially, the bill gave municipalities the right to essentially ban dispensaries. That provision was subsequently taken out, but now it's back -- kind of.

"The way the amendments went through yesterday, the local option got split up," Brown says. "On the one hand, it looked like the amendment was saying a local government could put a ban on the ballot through the initiative process or refer the issue to the ballot, even though the default setting once the bill passes would be that dispensaries are allowed.

"But it looks like the wording may have allowed for an 'or' clause instead of an 'and' clause regarding whether a city council could unilaterally ban dispensaries without going to the ballot. And if we've regressed that far, that's a big, big problem."

Indeed, Brown doesn't necessarily oppose the ballot option, in part because "I think most local governments will realize the value of dispensaries, and not just financially. Nobody wins by trying to shut us down rather than responsibly engaging the industry." But giving councils the right to ban without a vote would essentially codify the status quo in places like Aurora, whose officials have put up a red light that shows no signs of changing. He hopes to get more clarification by day's end.

Also problematic from his perspective are harsher restrictions for those who want to work in the medical marijuana biz despite past convictions.

"If you've committed any drug felony, regardless of how long ago, you're permanently barred, and there's no appeals process -- which is an extra and more severe process that would prohibit some people from becoming dispensary owners," Brown says.

This is especially problematic, in Brown's view, because some offenses that may have been branded felonies thirty or forty years ago are now misdemeanors -- and House Bill 1352, a measure currently progressing at the legislative level, would reduce penalties on more drug crimes by way of stressing treatment over jail time. "If a felony decades ago would now be considered a petty offense, that makes it a big deal if there's a bright line disqualifier that would permanently ban someone from the industry," he believes.

The bill next heads to the senate, and Brown is hopeful the arguments elucidated above will hold sway there. But he's unwilling to junk the whole process, as some advocates would like. Yesterday, for example, Cannabis Therapy Institute's Laura Kriho said CMMR "put themselves forward as a pro-marijuana group, but nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone in favor of patients is against these regulations. Anyone in favor of big business and squeezing out the little guy and eliminating 90 percent of their competition is for them."

On top of that, Kriho quoted recent comments by Senator Chris Romer, who's involved with both House Bill 1284 and Senate Bill 109, which attempts to clarify the relationship between doctors and medical marijuana patients. At a recent meeting, Romer estimated that dispensary license fees might be as high as $50,000 and said "auditors with guns" would be visiting dispensaries every five to seven days. Perhaps that's why she characterized the regulatory bill as offering "75 new, different ways that you can go to jail."

Not so, Brown believes. "A number of comments Chris Romer has been making to dispensary owners and anybody who would listen seem designed to get us worked up. But we estimate a dispensary license to be $1,800 and a license to grow to be about $500. And we did the math about auditors, and it simply doesn't work if they were to visit as often as he said." As such, he believes that "Chris Romer is the last big bogey factor we have to plan for and work with."

Of course, some legislators might have seen 4/20 at Civic Center in the same way, and Brown notes that music and speakers with bullhorns from the festival could be heard through the Capitol walls, prompting jokes from officials. "It was persistent and it may have hurt," Brown says. "But it may also have helped draw a line a little more clearly between those who advocate for blanket legalization and medical marijuana advocates and groups like ours that are engaging and working within the process."

To that end, Brown put together a fiction-versus-fact document for CMMR members that attempts to counter the worst fears MMJ advocates have about the regulatory bill and the doctor-patient measure. Check them out below:

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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