Medical marijuana in Denver: Councilman Chris Nevitt says if advocates ask for more than politicians can give, "they'll give nothing"

Earlier this week, Colorado Coalition for Patients and Caregivers founder Robert Chase led a protest against the Denver City Council after fewer than half of medical marijuana businesses approved to collect sales taxes applied for official dispensary licenses by March 1.

Chase lobbied for the recall of all council members, but singled out Chris Nevitt as the most disappointing. Nevitt "came and spoke to a marijuana boot camp in 2008 and he raised all kinds of pertinent objections," he told Westword. "But when it came down to it, he was part of the unanimous vote for the ordinance."

In response, Nevitt implies that many marijuana advocates have been their own worst enemies, demanding rules and regs that are politically impossible. He feels that "lighting us up for not giving them more of what they wanted is perverse when state legislators are currently contemplating destroying the dispensary model entirely."

Nevitt remembers appearing at the 2008 event Chase references:

"It was put on by SAFER, or by Brian Vicente's group -- one of those organizations," he says. "And I was invited, along with a state legislator, to talk about politics. So we kind of gave people a primer on, 'Here's how you deal with state legislators and city council people, and here's how the politics of marijuana plays out, and here's how to be most effective.' And, as it turned out, nobody took my advice."

What did he recommend?

"The things I preached were to focus on going to talk to politicians with constituents -- and not a lot of that happened," he says. "And I also talked about making sure you understand where the politician is coming from and what their constraints are. Look at how far they're willing to go and don't ask them for more than they're willing to give. Because if you ask them for more than they're willing to give, they'll give nothing -- but if you ask them what they can give, they'll give it to you. So it's a delicate balance.

"And I also told them that politics is not about self-expression; it's about getting things done. If you think it's more important to wear a tie-dye shirt and Rastafarian head gear, that's fine, but you're going to have a hard time relating to and making an argument that's going to be taken seriously by a politician wearing a suit. So put yourself aside and focus on the goal. If it's not your style to wear a suit, wear a suit anyway. Bring a constituent and speak in a language the politician understands. Figure out what they'll be able to come to an agreement with you on, and don't ask for more, because you're not going to get it."

Nonetheless, Nevitt continues, when it came time to debate proposed Denver rules, "the folks who testified in opposition to the ordinance that we passed kept asking for more. They wanted the elimination of the distance requirements. They didn't want any sort of retroactive grandfathering date. And on some of these things, I agreed with them. I argued strenuously with my colleagues. But at the end of the day, what we passed was the most permissive medical marijuana regulatory scheme in the state. Everyone else who's working on this, if they're working on it at all, is coming up with things that are more restrictive."

Perhaps -- but Chase and his supporters still believe the Denver ordinance was designed specifically to reduce the number of dispensaries in the city by about half. Nevitt's opinion?

"This is an issue that comes up in politics all the time -- people referring to the will of the voters or the purpose of legislation. But the core of politics is agreement on means in the absence of agreement on ends. People often agree on things for different reasons. And I think some of my colleagues wanted to restrict the future growth of medical marijuana as much as possible -- but they weren't entirely successful. The distance requirements from schools and other dispensaries are limiting, but Lord knows there's still plenty of room for growth."

As for the disparity between the number of dispensaries with sales-tax licenses and the total that applied under the new licensure regimen, Nevitt says, "Those two activities aren't costless, but one costs a whole lot more than the other one. To take out a sales tax license, you can do that as a speculative venture, thinking, 'I want to hold my place in line here.' But to pay the money and actually open a store, that's a higher hill to climb -- and I think a lot of people who got sales-tax licenses decided not to climb it.

"That's why I think the idea that somehow we've radically slashed the number of actual, operating dispensaries is empirically undemonstrable. You'd have to show me a whole lot more other than the difference between those who took out sales-tax licenses and those who applied for medical marijuana licenses. Because I can think of multiple cases of people I know who took out sales-tax licenses but ultimately elected not to pursue them."

That's one reason why Nevitt would have preferred to let the medical marijuana business develop more naturally.

"This is part of the argument I've made to my colleagues and other people who were freaking out about the number of dispensaries -- like, 'Oh my God, we've got over 400 potential dispensaries in Denver!' Well, this is a very predictable phase in an economic cycle. There's a brand new industry, a potentially lucrative industry, so people think that this is an opportunity and want to pursue it."

The result can be compared to the California gold rush, Nevitt says: "Every fool and his brother from back east pooled all their money and headed west to get filthy rich panning for gold -- and most of those people went broke. Of course, some of them didn't, because they were well-organized or lucky or persistent. But most of the economic boost from the gold rush was from ancillary stuff. Take Levi Strauss, for example.

"But right now, we're in the gold rush stage of medical marijuana here -- and I think it highly unlikely that Denver and its surroundings could possible sustain 400 medical marijuana dispensaries. I'm opposed to artificially shrinking that number and argued against it. I think that's the job of the market, to weed out the organized and the successful from those that aren't. But we haven't reached the equilibrium stage by any stretch of the imagination."

Whether the market is ever able to arrive at that point is another question, thanks largely to the unknowns surrounding medical marijuana legislation championed by Representative Tom Massey that will be up for public comment at the Capitol tomorrow.

As Nevitt points out, Massey's bill "anticipates completely eliminating the retail dispensary model that Denver has embraced in favor of either a nonprofit model or the clinical model, where the only people who can dispense medical marijuana have to be part of a more comprehensive wellness program, where they offer massage and aroma therapy and God knows what all. Denver has embraced a different model -- one where we've said it's okay to simply sell medical marijuana to certified patients. You don't have to do anything else, and you can deliver it to their homes, unlike the legislation, which eliminates that model and eliminates delivery."

What happens to the rules in Denver if the legislation passes as is?

"We're screwed," Nevitt says. "We'd have to change our rules, because if the state does that, its regulatory regime trumps ours. Now, we're up there arguing. We're arguing for local control -- and maybe the medical marijuana advocates won't like this, but what we're telling them is, ' Hey, Denver's pretty permissive. We're willing to embrace the dispensary model. We're willing to live with quite a few medical marijuana dispensaries. We want to see how this shakes out, and we should be free to do that.' And if, at the same time, other communities want to be more restrictive, that's up to them. We don't want to dictate Denver's values to other communities, and we sure as hell don't want them dictating their values to us."

The bottom line: Nevitt sees protests like the one aimed at the city council earlier in the week as being extremely shortsighted.

"This may sound trite, but you can't make the great be the enemy of the good," he says. "We had people on the steps of the City & County Building shouting at us with bullhorns about how we didn't produce the great. But in the meantime, across Civic Center Park, they're working to destroy the good. And apparently the advocates who were over here shouting at us feel the same way. Maybe they want to destroy the good, too."

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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