Medical marijuana protest against Denver City Council: "Closing half of the businesses in a particular sector is a sweeping action without any justification," activist says

The deadline has passed for medical marijuana dispensaries to apply for their official licenses in Denver -- and only 235 out of more than 500 did so.

Update, 3:22 p.m.: The Colorado Coalition for Patients and Caregivers has released a statement about the protest demanding the recall of city council members. Read it below the original item:

To Robert Chase, founder of the Colorado Coalition for Patients and Caregivers, who's organizing a protest of the Denver City Council at 5:15 p.m. at the City & County Building, this total indicates a problem not with the dispensaries, but with the rules and the process.

"Closing half of the businesses in a particular sector is a sweeping action without any justification offered for it," Chase says. "There's never been any justifications of their actions for this."

Chase's objections are "the same ones that were raised when the ordinance was being adopted" back in December, he says. "Dozens and dozens of people spoke at the public hearing against the ordinance, and only a handful spoke in favor of it. But it seemed like three or four city council members cited the concerns of two Stapleton housewives who were there, and ignored all the other comments.

"All of them were responding to a propaganda campaign waged in the Denver Post at the end of last year," he maintains. "They attacked the legitimacy of medical marijuana and tried to associate dispensaries with crime in people's minds -- and to some extent, they succeeded. That's why those two women drove in from Stapleton, and why they listened to them instead of to everyone else."

According to Chase, he's particularly disappointed in council member Chris Nevitt. "He came and spoke to a marijuana boot camp in 2008 and he raised all kinds of pertinent objections. But when it came down to it, he was part of the unanimous vote for the ordinance."

In Chase's view, council member Charlie Brown, who took the lead on medical marijuana regulation in Denver, decided at the outset that there were too many dispensaries, and specifically crafted his legislation to get rid of a passel of them, without regard to the entrepreneurs in question.

"They dispossessed hundreds of business people of their investment retroactively," he argues. "The requirement that the businesses had to receive their sales tax licenses as of December 15 when they had only started issuing them, and then only giving dispensaries twenty days to file this application requiring criminal background checks for anyone with so much as a 10 percent interest, shows that they have no concern for patients. Their only question was, how hard can we hit these businesses?"

In addition, Chase sees the $5,000 application fee both onerous and biased.

"The city's already raked in over a million dollars -- and the city council's actions favor the large establishment dispensaries. They've acted to put the mom-and-pop dispensaries out of business -- people who've made commitments for leases and all sorts of other things, and who didn't have a lot of money to spare. And they did it retroactively. Dispensaries were told that even if they'd been issued a sales tax license on December 16 that they wouldn't be grandfathered in -- which was the council's pure intent. They wanted to arbitrarily snuff out a large fraction of people moving forward."

He also has problems with the way criminal background checks equate liquor with marijuana.

"The comparison between liquor stores and dispensaries isn't particularly apt," he allows. "The nature of the drugs isn't being taken into account. When Mayor Hickenlooper was presiding over the Wynkoop Brewing Company, his products may have killed or led to the severe injury of people in Denver -- and 55,000 Americans a year die from the acute effect of alcohol. But no one's died of cannabis."

Late this afternoon, Chase and those who share his views will be gathering on the sidewalk near the City & County Building, 1437 Bannock, just prior to the scheduled start of the council's 5:30 p.m. meeting.

"We hope for a modest group of activists to come out and show how strongly we object to this," he says, adding, "I don't want to be a one-issue voter, and I don't think cannabis is the most important issue before us. But when the city council acts in this way, it's proof that they shouldn't occupy the office."

Update, 3:22 p.m.: Here's the aforementioned statement about the protest:

Denver City Council's Medical Marijuana Dispensary ordinance is bad public policy. Dispensaries were already contributing to Denver's economy by employing its citizens, renting vacant commercial properties, and paying sales taxes when the Denver City Council decided to extort five thousand dollars ($5,000.00) from some and to deny operating licenses to many others to which the City had already issued sales tax licenses. The licensing fees for dispensaries are grossly excessive. They and the separation requirements which will force over one hundred dispensaries to close are unnecessary and capricious.

After raking in well over a million dollars in application and license fees (costs which must be borne by patients, many of whom have difficulty paying for their medicine), Denver has ordered all dispensaries which could not or did not submit an application by Friday, Feb. 26 to cease operations. The consequence of Denver City Council's irrational enactment is the immediate closure of more than two hundred businesses belonging to tax-paying, rent-paying employers in our city! Denver can ill-afford more joblessness or vacant storefronts now, nor does it make sense from the standpoint of encouraging free enterprise and deriving tax revenue from it to close down half of our dispensaries arbitrarily and slap exorbitant fees on the remainder when all would be glad to pay their fair share in taxes.

Denver's City Council demonstrated breathtakingly poor judgement in its hasty adoption of the present ordinance restricting medical cannabis dispensaries in the face of overwhelming public opposition. Denver needs more jobs, greater retail occupancy, and more tax revenue, not less. Denver cannot afford a City Council which stupidly abuses government power for the express purpose of destroying half of a local industry despite an abundance of evidence that dispensaries are benign and contribute substantially to Denver's economy.

The Colorado Coalition for Patients and Caregivers demands that the Denver City Council immediately rescind its Medical Marijuana Dispensary ordinance. Cannabis is not the issue (although Denver wants to end Prohibition); abuse of power and monumental incompetence are. Voters, arise, recall this Council, and elect true representatives!

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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