Medical marijuana bill sponsor Rep. Ken Summers not sold on nonprofit dispensary model

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This week, a new medical marijuana bill was introduced, and while activists at the Cannabis Therapy Institute see it and an earlier measure about doctor-patient relationships as largely contemptible, advocates Matt Brown and Brian Vicente see promise amid the problems -- although Vicente has announced plans for a medical marijuana ballot measure if needed changes aren't made.

Representative Ken Summers, a co-sponsor of the latest bill with Rep. Tom Massey (the measure's frontman), Senator Chris Romer (taking the lead on the doctor-patient bill) and Senator Josh Penry, feels much better about it, naturally. "If the measure of a good piece of legislation is that nobody's happy with it, we've probably got a good bill," he says.

Yet even Summers has some doubts about the decision to set up dispensaries (called "centers" in the bill) using a nonprofit model. In his words, "That's actually an issue I'm not sure I'm sold on necessarily."

Summers isn't a newcomer to the medical marijuana issue.

"I had a bill title pulled to address it last fall sometime," he says. "It was pretty much focused on the doctor-patient relationship. I had some meetings with the Department of Health, asked them what they were seeing and what did they think we needed to do to bring some parameters and clarification -- and I told them I was willing to work with them to create the structure to really address this issue."

Back then, Summers continues, "they were receiving 600 medical marijuana applications a day" -- smaller numbers than have been generated lately. (One day in January, 1,650 applications flowed in.) "And when you start looking at the data and the number of physicians who were authorizing most of those applications, you think, something isn't right here. It was obvious that some people were handing out authorizations like candy to a kid. And I've even had individuals tell me that, basically, they gamed the system."

The biggest warning sign from Summers' perspective? "The high percentage of applications that were issued just for pain, undefined pain," he notes. "If you look at what the constitution says, and the severity of the medical conditions that are listed, that raises questions. My contention has been that pain is not a medical condition. It's a symptom of other medical conditions. But a lot of the authorizations have been written based on a symptom the constitution refers to as opposed to the underlying condition that's in the context of the constitution."

Overall, Summers is pleased by the way Romer's doctor-patient proposal addresses these and related issues, and he's generally happy as well with what he refers to as "the Massey-Summers bill" to regulate the industry on a broader scale; it's likely to have its first hearing before the House judiciary committee on Monday. Still, he concedes that he hasn't quite come to closure on the notion of centers being put on a nonprofit path.

"California uses a nonprofit model, but they can't qualify as federally recognized nonprofits because marijuana is still a type-one substance -- so they would be Colorado nonprofits," he points out. "I was going to talk to Representative Massey and say, 'Does it really make a difference?'

"I think the general approach seems to be that if it's a nonprofit, they'll be more focused on service and an educational and scientific-based approach, as opposed to saying, 'This is a great way to make a quick million bucks.' But with proper regulation and licensing, I'm not sure what all the advantages of a state-level nonprofit as opposed to a for-profit entity really are. To be honest, I have some questions about that."

He has no doubts, though, about giving cities the right to essentially ban dispensaries -- which is his understanding of what a passage in the bill would do.

"As long as there's the caregiver model" -- in which unregulated caregivers can serve up to five patients -- "then cities don't have to create local zoning ordinances and so forth around those physical locations. I think that's fine."

What about the argument that patients in areas that have banned dispensaries/centers will have a much more difficult time accessing their medicine than will those who live in places where such operations are allowed -- a circumstance that seemingly turns them into second-class citizens from a constitutional standpoint?

"The way I read the bill, the department is committed to doing everything in its power to make sure access to caregivers in those situations is available," he replies. "And there is a provision that allows the number of patients an individual caregiver can serve to increase if access is limited relative to the number of patients in a city who really need the service."

He's also firmly in favor of a section that requires dispensaries to grow 90 percent of their product -- a rule some advocates fear will make it difficult for small centers to compete against larger, better financed rivals.

"It has to be that way," he says. "One thing I know is that marijuana isn't that difficult to grow, so I think even a small store can grow and produce enough medical marijuana to serve the patients they have."

Just as important in his view is having a firmer idea about who's supplying the marijuana.

"From what I'm hearing from my own county district attorney [Summers represents part of Jefferson County, whose DA is Scott Storey], he's very concerned about the whole influx of marijuana from Mexico and the adjustments that are being made from that element to be a main supplier. So it's going to be critical to maintain the legitimacy of the source, so consumers will know where the marijuana is coming from, how it is grown, under what conditions, and other purity and quality-control things."

Although many members of the medical marijuana community chafe at such regulations, Summers feels legislators have more than met advocates halfway.

"Just the fact that the bill makes allowances for what's referred to as centers creates a reasonable structure for the constitutional provisions to be implemented," he says. "At least at this point, I think that's probably the best approach."

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