Medical marijuana in Castle Rock: Jumping through hoops precedes potential dispensary ban

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Attorney Lauren Davis is still exasperated by a hearing last night in Castle Rock, which is considering a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries that would disenfranchise two businesses that have already been cleared to operate in the town.

Davis says her client, Amber Ostrom, who owns a dispensary called Plants 4 Life, has done everything the city has asked her and more, even when the actions seemed nonsensical. Now, Ostrom stands to lose tens of thousands of dollars -- and the eighty patients for whom she serves as the primary caregiver will be out of luck. But Davis plans to fight any attempt to shut her down.

"If they revoke or revise her business license, there'll be a lawsuit," she says.

Plants 4 Life has received "the typical runaround from the officials in Castle Rock," Davis says. It started in September, "when they wanted to find out if they were properly zoned at their first location before they signed a lease. The town told them, 'We can't give you that information. You need to sign the lease, then apply for a business license, and then we can tell you.'"

Ostrom and company did just that -- and afterward, Davis continues, "the town told them, 'You're in the wrong zone. Dispensaries are kin to a pharmacy, so therefore, you have to be in a different zone.'"

Needless to say, the landlord at the building where Plants 4 Life originally planned to locate wasn't thrilled by this turn of events, Davis notes -- but he didn't make Ostrom's life miserable by demanding payment of the entire lease price. Nonetheless, Ostrom had to take down walls she'd put up in the space, losing approximately $1,200 in the process, by Davis' estimate.

Shortly thereafter, Ostrom found a new space, at 121 N. Wilcox, which Davis describes as being "right across the street from the town hall." Again, she asked if the location was properly zoned for her business, and again, she was told she'd have to sign the lease first, then find out afterward.

This time, fortunately, the zoning was correct, and Ostrom secured a business license and a sales-tax license. She thought she'd be good to go at that point, but Davis says an official then contacted her to say she needed to line up a certificate of occupancy. "The new landlord called the town and said, 'What do you mean? I've owned this space for ten years, and no one's needed a certificate of occupancy before,'" Davis goes on. "But apparently there was a new policy that had gone into effect in the days before they signed the lease. So they had to jump through that hoop, too."

Once Plants 4 Life received this document, Ostrom opened for business. But the Castle Rock bureaucracy was just gearing up.

"The town decided to hold a hearing about their options regarding medical marijuana -- putting in a moratorium, banning dispensaries or some form of intermediate legislation," Davis recalls. "We went to the hearing, and it was just a circus. The town council had no idea what they were doing. At the end, they directed the town attorney to prepare a moratorium ordinance, and to address whether Plants 4 Life and another dispensary in town would be grandfathered in."

Cut to early November, when the council met again. "I don't know if a moratorium ordinance was drafted -- but they moved to a discussion of a ban on dispensaries in the town of Castle Rock. That got tabled until a meeting two weeks later, when the council, on the first and final reading, decided that dealing with this issue was an emergency, even though the medical marijuana amendment had established the laws almost ten years ago. Apparently, it was an emergency because people had actually started applying for business licenses."

The upshot? In Davis' words, "They voted to amend the town ordinance to specifically say we're not granting a business license to people who aren't in compliance with both state and federal law" -- and since marijuana continues to be illegal at a federal level, medical marijuana dispensaries wouldn't meet this criteria. Moreover, Davis notes, "this is a continuing obligation. So if a business gets out of compliance, then the town manager has the right to revoke or revise a business' license."

Such an eventuality would be disastrous for Ostrom, who's a medical marijuana patient herself. "She had a serious head injury when she was a child and has been an epileptic ever since then," Davis reveals. "Prior to using medical marijuana, she'd have grand mal seizures that would last for nine minutes at a time. But she's been able to control her seizures through the use of medical marijuana. That's what prompted her to get into this -- to help patients in Castle Rock in the same way she's been helped."

Not all of those patients would be able to follow Ostrom to a new town even if she could find a location due to driving restrictions placed on them by their medical conditions -- and because Douglas County has a dispensary ban in place, even her more mobile customers would be put at a considerable disadvantage. Besides, Ostrom has already put around $60,000 into Plants 4 Life. If she loses all of that, her future as an entrepreneur will be in doubt.

Other Castle Rock businesses are also concerned about the ordinance, Davis says.

"I've talked to people who are worried that even if someone jumps over every hurdle the town puts in front of them and does everything the town requires of them, the town can still just willy-nilly revoke their business license if they don't like what they're doing."

That's not to mention the vagueness of the ordinance's wording.

"It doesn't specify what applies and what doesn't apply," Davis says. "Could an OSHA violation get a business deemed inappropriate?"

As for the prospects of a lawsuit, attorney Rob Corry, Davis' associate, is already involved in a lawsuit against the City of Centennial over a medical marijuana dispensary closure -- and in some ways, the Castle Rock case looks even stronger.

"In Castle Rock, the town knew expressly that our clients were opening a medical marijuana dispensary," Davis says. "There's an issue in Centennial about, 'Did the business put that specific information in there? And is it even necessarily required based on what they did?' But in Castle Rock, officials knew it was for a medical marijuana dispensary, and they went about drafting an emergency ordinance after the fact."

The town has attempted to justify the suddenness of its actions by saying the decision impacted the immediate health, safety and welfare of the community. Davis scoffs at this assertion.

"They're clearly distorting what constitutes an emergency," she believes. "They can't state what the immediate threat is, expect that, all of a sudden, people want to exercise their constitutional rights in Castle Rock."

What happens next? Plants 4 Life is supposed to be informed of the town council's decision within two weeks. In the meantime, a potential lawsuit hangs in the balance.

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