Medical marijuana dispensary ban to be on some (and maybe all) Douglas County ballots

HB 1284, the measure designed to regulate the medical marijuana industry, contains a provision allowing municipalities to ban medical marijuana dispensaries either by a vote of city councils and the like or via ballot initiatives.

Aurora has already taking the latter course, with Colorado Springs likely to follow. And now, Douglas County is doing likewise -- although in a potentially complicated fashion.

Yesterday, the three Douglas County commissioners unanimously voted to put the issue on the November ballot. The reason, according to commissioner Jack Hilbert, is that "the law came from the ballot, so it makes sense to put it back on the ballot. If the citizens are going to make changes, they should do it there."

The ban wouldn't effect the handful of currently operating dispensaries in Douglas County. However, a moratorium on new operations has been extended until July 2011. The rationale?

"The new state statute allows the ability for entities to put in place a moratorium until you can develop a licensing process," Hilbert notes. "In our case, we decided the best thing to do is leave the existing businesses in business and extend the moratorium to next July. That gives us the opportunity to develop a licensing process in the event that citizens vote for it. And if they don't, we don't have to spend taxpayer money and resources to do something they don't want."

Pro-medical marijuana attorneys such as Jessica Corry have promised lawsuits about a number of provisions in the new MMJ law, with a particular emphasis on local bans. With so many municipalities now planning to put the issue up for a November vote, some communities may dodge such suits, but the danger remains. But Hilbert says "that was never part of the discussion for us.

"Our whole take on the issue was, you know what, we have some businesses in place, and we don't want to do a regulatory taking until we have a vote of the people."

Doing so won't be easy, though. Douglas County can impose rules on unincorporated portions of its territory, but not on communities within the county, which have the right to establish their own guidelines.

"We've never had a ballot question set up in such a way where it was for unincorporated citizens only," Hilbert acknowledges. "Incorporated areas have their own land-use jurisdictions, and I don't see how we can impose our regulations on top of them. So we're in the process of trying to determine with the Secretary of State's office if we have to go to a vote of all the county, or just the unincorporated part.

"That's not as simple as one thinks," he continues. "Let's say you have a district that overlaps a city boundary of some type, where they could be asking a question for their district that would involve those people. But if we have this, we'd have to identify which of those people are in the town and which aren't."

The likely result, Hilbert believes, will be "multiple ballot types that we'll have to distribute to various people. It becomes more of a juggling act."

Nonetheless, Hilbert sees the move as necessary because "the voters are the ones who approved this in the first place -- and I constantly hear from people who say, 'This is not what I voted for.' I think people who voted for it went with their heart and their compassion, but now they're looking at this and saying, 'I didn't vote for this.'"

If that's the case in Douglas County, at least some of them will get the chance to stake out a new position.

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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