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Medical marijuana: Possible dispensary-ban vote needed, says El Paso County commissioner

Earlier this week, we told you about a lawsuit against Westminster's medical-marijuana dispensary ban, which attorney Sean McAllister hopes will serve as a test case to challenge all such prohibitions in Colorado. But the prospect of litigation isn't stopping municipalities from considering imposing such limits. Yesterday, El Paso County spent the lion's share of the day weighing a ballot measure about a ban -- and commissioner Wayne Williams sees such a vote as essential.

"We had about six-and-a-half hours of testimony," notes Williams, who says the fifteen or so folks testifying (of around forty total attendees) offered up a wide range of opinions: "Some of them wanted the commissioners to ban it, some opposed a ban, and some wanted us to do nothing at all."

This last approach is possible given that the commissioners passed temporary regulations last December, "because we weren't sure what, if anything, the legislature would do," Williams maintains. "So we adopted land-use regulations that govern where these businesses could be located and generally limited them to the commercial zones. There are also some distance requirements from churches, schools and the like."

Using these temporary regulations as a guideline, numerous entrepreneurs put up businesses at no small expense. According to medical-marijuana advocate Timothy Tipton, who attended yesterday's meeting, commissioners heard from multiple parties whose investments were well into the six-figure range. And there are plenty of other investors in this position. By Williams's count, El Paso County has collected about seventy license applications for dispensaries, grow operations, infused-product operations and so on.

Such entrepreneurs "were arguing for some form of grandfathering" targeting pre-existing businesses, Williams says. But he's not entirely receptive to this argument, pointing out that "we said it was temporary, and that there would be no guarantee it would continue." Still, these contentions and others were sufficiently intriguing to convince the commissioners to delay any decision about a ballot measure for a couple of weeks. They'll be taking up the topic again on Thursday, August 26.

As for Williams's personal opinion, he's unapologetically in favor of a prohibition vote, which he sees as necessary given how much things have changed over the past decade or so since the passage of Amendment 20, which legalized medical marijuana in Colorado. Likewise, he thinks the simpler the proposal, the better it would be.

"My view is that you want to give the people the chance to make a decision about what they wish to do -- and that this choice should be between allowing dispensaries entirely or banning them entirely," he says.

His rationale?

"There have been two statewide initiatives about marijuana," he says. "There was the one in 2006," which would have legalized possession of marijuana in small amounts for adults, "and there was the older one, which said medical marijuana for very specific debilitating conditions would be allowed. But that one referred to marijuana being possessed by patients and caregivers, not by grow operations and dispensaries or medical marijuana centers. So that was a different scenario than what was addressed by the voters either time. And allowing them to make a decision as to whether they wish for this variation is probably very appropriate."

Such a ban wouldn't effect the many medical marijuana businesses within the city limits of Colorado Springs, El Paso County's largest community. (By Williams's count, the Springs has received about 400 MMJ-related license applications.) And he points out that other El Paso County burgs, including Palmer Lake, Fountain and Manitou Springs, have enacted their own ordinances. But while some medical marijuana boosters decry this patchwork of rules, he has no problem with the situation.

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"I don't think it's particularly confusing," he allows, "and I think the flexibility of allowing different communities to decide what they prefer is a good thing. It still means that if you need the products for legitimate medical reasons, you're able to find locations that have them. But at the same time, communities that don't want that type of business can make the decision not to have them."

Neither does the prospect of costly litigation of the sort Westminster is facing from attorney McAllister cause him much distress.

"You've already got litigation taking place, and I suspect whichever one makes it to the Court of Appeals first will be the one where all of this will be decided," he says. "But medical marijuana centers were not part of Amendment 20, and in 2006, the voters rejected marijuana legalization. So it's clear that they're okay with marijuana for medical use, but they're not okay with it generally.

"That means we have to figure out what the right method is for us."

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