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Medical-marijuana hearing gets delayed as pot-fueled opposition grows

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In the game of bureaucratic chicken between state officials and medical marijuana advocates, chalk one up for the stoners.

In response to a growing Colorado medical marijuana community, and reports of abuses in the unregulated industry, state health officials proposed new regulations last month that could put a stranglehold on the local medical-pot business. Among other things, the rules would limit each medical marijuana "caregiver" to a max of five patients -- a constraint that would seem to disallow the state's growing number of marijuana dispensaries.

At the time Ron Hyman, state registrar of vital statistics, said he expected the March 18 Colorado Board of Health hearing on the regulations to be "energetic," but even he wasn't prepared for the subsequent backlash by those who believed the state was trying to take away their voter-sanctioned marijuana (not to mention dispensary owners who believed the state was torpedoing their voter-sanctioned livelihood). After more than a hundred people swamped a minor logistical meeting on the matter last week, officials decided to delay the March 18 hearing so they could find a larger meeting room. Now Hyman says they're expecting to hold the hearing in June.

"I think we put a little fear in them," says Brian Vicente, Executive Director of the drug policy reform group Sensible Colorado.

The state's pot movement is growing stronger all the time. Medical marijuana advocates have been emboldened by new attorney general Eric Holder's announcement that the Justice Department will stop raiding marijuana dispensaries, not to mention President Barack Obama's recent decision to fill his drug czar position with Gil Kerlikowske, police chief in Seattle, where the medical marijuana and "decriminalization" laws are similar to Denver's. An unnamed source notes that an entrepreneur is looking to open a medical marijuana dispensary around the Highlands neighborhood, and word has it that dispensaries are starting to open up on the Western Slope. While most Colorado dispensaries so far are small-scale operations, it's likely only be a matter of time before a large-scale enterprise -- think the Walgreens of ganja -- rolls into town.

But even Vicente believes the state's medical marijuana scene could use additional regulating. Instead of the new rules proposed by the state, though, he'd like to see a task force involving health administrators, law enforcement patients, caregivers and advocates come together to consider new dispensary rules such as advertising and location restrictions, sales tax obligations and quality control measures.

Hyman isn't opposed to such a working group -- but that doesn't mean the state will put the kibosh on its proposed regulations. "Once we are able to confirm exactly where we are going to hold the hearing and have an exact date, we will send out another notice," says Hyman. "I'm guessing we need room for at least several hundred. We are trying to find a place that can handle that size crowd and has adequate parking and handicapped access."

Considering those prerequisites, here's a possibility: Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Maybe even Widespread Panic would play. For lots of the marijuana advocates in attendance, it'll be just like old times.

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