Medical marijuana laws will kill 40 percent of dispensaries, Brian Vicente predicts

Yesterday, with as little fanfare as possible, Governor Bill Ritter signed two bills, HB 1284 and SB 109, designed to regulate Colorado's medical marijuana industry.

MMJ advocates like Matt Brown hail the legislation.

But Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente sees them as flawed landmarks that will likely doom 40 percent of the state's dispensaries.

Although announcements have been made in advance of virtually every major bill Ritter has signed in the past week or so, he commented on adding his scrawl to HB 1284 and SB 109 only after doing so, issuing a canned statement in which he argued that the measures "strike a delicate balance between protecting public safety and respecting the will of the voters."

Why the stealth approach? Did Ritter want to avoid a photo op that would picture him alongside members of the MMJ industry? Or does he have problems with the bills and only signed them because to not do so would invite chaos? Multiple messages have been left with Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer regarding these questions, but he hasn't responded at this writing. When and if he does, this post will be updated.

In the meantime, Vicente isn't surprised in the slightest that Ritter treated the MMJ bill signings like red-headed stepchildren.

"I think it's safe to say the governor at his heart is a district attorney," Vicente says. "He's a law-and-order type of guy, and I think he's not been very accepting of the changing political climate around medical marijuana and the war on drugs."

Vicente, for his part, was ready with a statewide ballot initiative in the event HB 1284 fell short of his organization's standards -- and there's plenty about it he doesn't like. When asked how many dispensaries simply won't be able to survive given the new regulations, he replies, "I would guess 40 percent.

"There's going to be a major shakeup," he continues. "There are some really onerous provisions in this new law that are going to make it financially difficult to continue to operate -- and really difficult for anyone with a criminal record. It's overly strict in ways that are going to ultimately hurt patients, because there won't be that many options for many of them."

Nevertheless, Vicente has all but ruled out a statewide campaign due to "resources and time." Instead, he says, "we're looking at doing local initiatives for this November's ballot in towns that choose to ban dispensaries via their city councils or county commissioners" -- a power most advocates opposed that still managed to work its way into the legislation.

First on his list of targets is Vail, "where the mayor has made some very insensitive comments about essentially wanting to deprive sick people of their medicine by shutting off dispensaries. He's talked about how dispensaries are supposedly hurting Vail's image, but this isn't about Vail's image. It's about access to medicine."

Colorado Springs could also be a focus of Sensible Colorado's energies if local leaders approve a prohibition -- but Aurora is a sure thing, given that its city council has already announced its intention to put a dispensary ban on the ballot.

To Vicente, Aurora's decision to let citizens weigh in on the issue "is certainly more appropriate than just banning access to medicine by fiat -- and we feel fairly confident that the voters in Aurora will act to protect their sickest community members by allowing dispensaries. We've already been contacted by community members there who want to make sure patients are protected."

In the meantime, Vicente, who's a lawyer, and other local MMJ attorneys, including some on Sensible Colorado's board, are looking at a series of lawsuits to attack other troublesome aspects of the bills, including "the five-patient cap on caregivers, which we feel is unconstitutional; the ban on out-of-state residents taking part in this emerging health-care field; and the bar on two caregivers growing together. There's just no basis for that in the constitution. And we don't think the law should be weakened in a way that hurts safe access."

His best guess on the timing of these suits is "soon. Discussions are underway, and we're working to find the best plaintiffs and best legal strategies. We won't be sitting on our hands for too long."

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