Medical marijuana fight: AOM's Brian Cook takes on city council over dispensary shutdown

Yesterday, Denver City Council member Carla Madison explained the rationale behind an amendment that forced Altitude Organic Medicine, a successful Highlands dispensary, out of business.

AOM's Brian Cook has responded with a virtual manifesto about the situation. Read it below:

First of all, for the readers that would prefer to omit the City zoning code mumbo jumbo and just focus on what really happened to Altitude Organic Medicine in the Denver Highlands, you can skip below here to the section titled, "What Really Happened." That section disregards the zone code in plain language and explains the timeline of closing Altitude Organic Medicine. Please be the judge if you think any of this is fair to Altitude Organic Medicine and their 905 patients?

We appreciate Council woman Carla Madison addressing this important issue in the Westword yesterday. In response to her explanation of the "emergency ordinance" that blocked AOM from getting its license in a legal zone, we'd like to start by saying, "My God! Finally we have an attempted explanation from the City for closing down a growing business by special ordinance, even though it was properly located and paying increasing taxes monthly, hiring new local workers since November 2009." The $9,000 dollars we spent on attorneys just in the month of June, couldn't get an attempted explanation like today's from the City, nor could it get through to the Council that they were passing an ordinance that wrongfully would close our business in a legal Commercial zone. Only the Denver Westword, combined with the support of Denver citizens and our patients e-mailing the Council non-stop, could get them to try to explain this inexplicable targeted ordinance finally.

Carla Madison tries to dismiss this terrible incident as being due to the "glacial" pace of Denver government today. Sitting at our closed businesses angle, this "emergency" ordinance came like a hurricane as soon as our new attorneys sent in our denial objection letter to the City. The first reading of the hurricane speed ordinance came sometime in early June and was passed on June 21 after the third reading. Apparently the City government has the ability to cause damage to good local businesses and their patients with high-speed. They blocked us from getting our license in a legal zone in less then 2 weeks. We didn't find out about this proposal and how it targeted us and possibly one or two other businesses in the City, until a private meeting with our district Council woman Judy Montero June 17th. I think Mrs. Madison meant the glacial speed the City government would respond to this incident or try to fix the huge mistake they made?

I was at the City Council meeting on June 21st with our attorney and dozens of our patients and supporters trying to tell them this was the wrong thing to do before they voted on the "emergency" ordinance. We were not allowed to speak before they voted and passed it. We could barely get any attempted explanation from the City for months before this happened, "just plain NO's" and "you're in the wrong zone, NO" regarding our prior R-MU-30 mixed-use zone denial. That zone was also a legal "consumer retail" zone that we occupied months before they changed rules that grandfathered in dispensaries 150 feet from elementary schools (Chronic Wellness, Federal and 38th) and denied our business in a properly located mixed-use district that encouraged consumer retail business.

I think it is very important for all the Westword readers, regardless of their opinion of the medical marijuana industry, to understand that the City of Denver should not be allowed to make up new ordinances without using grandfather dates ever. It doesn't matter if it's a child day care center, a restaurant, or a medical marijuana dispensary. If a business can open legally in November 2009 and then the business has to worry that they can be closed and lose everything at anytime via ordinances that never existed, why would anyone start a business at all in the City of Denver? If this is allowed without consequence to the City even though we followed all rules, wouldn't this leave the whole process open to "favoritism" and "who you know" instead of good business practices and who was there first? We were so focused when we opened on being good neighbors, correcting industry misconceptions, providing quality products, giving good customer service, and treating our patients with respect. Is it right that the only thing we should have cared about was if the City would pass an ordinance after we were in business for months that totally disregarded the part of our zone code that read, "R-MU-30 zones support commercial development, such as consumer retail and service uses and small-scale office uses, these are encouraged to create a truly mixed-use environment."

If any citizen thinks it is OK for Cities to only enforce part of an existing zone code after the business is operating, regardless of the type of business, then you can see you are leaving the City open to to do anything it pleases to anyone based on politics instead of equitable treatment. Denver told us we were in a Residential zone after we opened even though if you come and look at our building and our street, there are more businesses on it then residences. Our landlord owns all the residences around us anyway. The Denver Highlands is not Highlands Ranch! Businesses that have actual complaints from their neighbors, are on many corners mixed in with residences near-by. Were we really supposed to guess before we opened in November that the City would later decide to just read the R and dismiss the MU-30 portion of our zone code without using any grandfather date? Our zone always encouraged retail sales, yet they told us months after we were opened we had to lose everything and start over, hoping the City would approve us at another legal area? Next in June, when the City didn't have this excuse to block our license anymore because the zone changed to commercial, they blocked us in a pure commercial area by special council ordinance. This was a devastating action they took! Why was this "emergency" ordinance blocking primarily us, proposed in a safety committee meeting anyway, Carla?

We were banned from getting our license in an area that just had the zone code updated for the first time since 1956. Does Carla and the rest of the Council believe the area we were operating in now was more accurately described as a commercial zone as it is classified in 2010 or was it more accurately described as R-MU-30 and Platte River Valley zone in 1956? Either way, they made a mistake closing us down, but clearly the 2010 classification is the correct use of the property and they banned us and possibly one or two others in the City by "emergency" ordinance in legal zones on June 21. If there were complaints from our neighbors we would feel differently about what has happened. The sad fact is we only benefited the Denver Highlands neighborhood, our patients, and our neighbors all liked having us here. I went into the Highland United Neighbors board of directors meeting and asked everyone there if they heard any complaints about us and the answer was "zero complaints" after we had opened in November. We ended up having several neighbors become our patients and a few shared with us they were nervous at first when they heard a dispensary was opening nearby. After we opened, they saw our marketing was professional without pot leaves and there were zero noise or parking problems. They all changed their minds and supported Altitude Organic Medicine immediately.

Lastly, this entire zone debate is moot and we start to head into politics and favoritism when anyone visits our banned location and sees that another dispensary in the same mixed use neighborhood and same zone raised its sign up June 21. Please, council, stay far away from trying to explain this one! It's impossible to explain this terrible episode as an effort to ban dispensaries in mixed use neighborhoods if we do. We might get entirely out of confusing zone code language and get into what really happened?


In November 2009, AOM signs a 3 year lease at 1716 Boulder Street in the Denver Highlands. (Lease has over $50,000 still due on it in a legal commercial zone)

AOM was granted City and State retail sales tax licensing even before lease was executed. Sales tax began being paid to the City of Denver and State in November 09.

Business increases substantially, despite normal growing pains and product improvement stage.

January 2010, City of Denver decides it needs to get control of the non-business professional dispensaries and City passes a new ordinance.

New ordinance grandfathers dispensaries 1,000 feet from each other and 500 feet from schools if in business before December 15th. New ordinance bans dispensaries in residential zones or any other zone that prohibits retail sales. The City omits any grandfather date. AOM is in the only residential mixed use zone, R-MU-30, that encourages retail sales.

AOM freaks out and asks business consultants and attorney if this would apply to a properly located, completely professional, local owned dispensary? Business consultant assures AOM that the City realizes they would owe "Just Compensation" if they enforce a back-dated ordinance on a properly located business without a grandfather date and that the City will correct the problem.

AOM continues to grow and gain praise around the City. Pays higher City sales tax every month of operation and hires more employees. AOM begins the first grower certification class in the state of Colorado.

AOM pays higher City sales tax every month of operation.

March 2010 AOM submits $5,000 City of Denver medical marijuana license application and receives denial of license from the excise and license department.

Business consultant again assures this enforcement will not happen and likely will be corrected soon so we delays appeal hearing using a land use attorney.

Later, AOM is dragged into license hearing no longer allowed to delay and we were not allowed to read the portion of the zone code that allowed retail sales. Excise and license department said it was irrelevant.

AOM hires new $400 an hour attorney's and a litigator downtown at end of May. Attorneys skillfully explain in 10 page report how wrong the ordinance was in every way, including that our zone would be commercial in less then a month. Next thing we know, a new ordinance is proposed to the City council in June that would ban AOM after our zone changed to a regular commercial zone instead of residential mixed-use.

City council passes ordinance in record time, less the two weeks, and another dispensary raises its sign 600 feet away from us on the same day, June 21.

AOM is forced to close and stop serving their patients on July 2nd. :(

Is any of this fair?

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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