Medical marijuana bills are flawed landmarks, says MMJ advocate Brian Vicente

Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente wound up working the early shift today. Before 7 a.m., he'd appeared on Channel 4's morning news program to talk about yesterday's passage of HB 1284, a bill designed to regulate the state's medical marijuana industry. He joined Senator Chris Romer, who backed the measure and served as lead sponsor for SB 109, which tries to clarify the relationship between doctors and MMJ patients.

Vicente views the legislation as a blend of the good and the bad, with some ugly thrown in. But he concedes that, "in some ways, a number of advocates, including myself, are having a hard time seeing the forest through the trees. The long-term effect of a state doing this is landmark. But for folks like myself, who've been in the trenches and have spent considerable time fighting things like five-patient caps and local bans -- and now to see those things codified in state law -- well, that's tough to swallow."

Predictably, Romer and Vicente had differing takes on HB 1284's success. "He basically said, 'This is a bipartisan bill,' and he's happy about the passage -- and he predicted that it'll shut down 50 percent of dispensaries in Colorado, which the Department of Revenue echoes," Vicente notes.

To that, Vicente says, "If 50 percent of dispensaries shut down, that potentially puts hundreds or thousands of Coloradans out of work and limits patient supply by 50 percent. I don't know why that should be celebrated."

At the same time, however, Vicente believes the bill has "some decent provisions. It firmly codifies dispensaries in state law, and I think that's decent for patient access. But there are some onerous provisions as well, including the local ban option, which is damaging for patients. It's the equivalent of a town or a county banning pharmacies, and I think it's absolutely inappropriate. That and other provisions are pretty prone to court challenge."

As recently as late last month, Vicente noted that he had a dispensary-related ballot initiative ready should the final bill fail to meet his standards -- and he hasn't written off this possibility.

"We're still sussing that out," he says. "Sensible Colorado is doing a series of stakeholder meetings/trainings on the new law" -- learn more about the sessions, which begin on Monday, May 17, in Denver by clicking here -- "and we want to hear from patients and providers as to how they view this bill, what are the problems, and if they think the resources and the will is there to challenge it this year. But we're butting up against some pretty serious deadlines in terms of signature-gathering. So we'll have to gauge what our constituents want to do."

As such, Vicente says, pursuing complaints through the judicial system is "a more likely scenario." Indeed, he's part of a group -- members include fellow attorneys Jessica and Rob Corry -- that is currently preparing for potential lawsuits.

"We've already talking about areas for legal action within this bill, of which there are many," he points out. "So I think there will be some litigation. We just need to really figure out what's the best approach, who the best plaintiffs are, and what are the best challenges to bring."

He's particularly optimistic about taking on the language allowing local community's to ban dispensaries without a vote of the people. In his opinion, "I think there's a good shot, since the only judge to consider this issue ruled in our favor" -- a reference to a December decision regarding a dispensary ban in Centennial.

"Safe access is protected in our constitution," he continues. "And the word 'dispense' is in there, so we believe the dispensary model is thus protected. I hope we'll come out favorably on that, which would not only be a win for the constitution, but it would also be a win for common-sense health-care policy."

Speaking of which, Vicente also sees positive and negatives in SB 109, which has gotten lost in the shuffle of late; it was passed by both the Colorado House and Senate last week.

"There are some strong parts," he allows. "I think abuse in the system by a handful of doctors should be ferreted out and dealt with accordingly. But at the same time, I'm concerned that this is essentially going to open up doctor witch hunts, which are going to be footed by patients.

"The way this bill is drafted, it allows the Health Department to conduct serious investigations into doctors they feel may be in violation -- and then, those investigations will be paid for by patients through a $90 annual fee. I think that's unprecedented and outrageous for patients to have to pay for potential malfeasance by doctors. And the Health Department is in no way an impartial player in this."

Indeed, last July, the department considered new regulations about patient limits that some observers feared might smother the industry in its infancy. After a raucous public hearing, the department backed down. But as recently as March, department personnel actively lobbied against efforts to get post-traumatic stress disorder listed as a condition that can be treated by medical marijuana.

"They have sought to limit, and in some cases destroy, this program at every turn," Vicente feels. "So putting more power in their hands is absolutely concerning -- especially allowing them to focus in and destroy doctors' practices because of their suspicions."

No wonder he says that the looming signing of the bills into law represents "a mixed result at the end of the day. But the battle isn't over."

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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