Medical marijuana restrictions: Councilwoman doesn't see residential grow limits as a hardship

On Monday, the Denver City Council considered a proposal that would limit the number of marijuana plants grown in residential areas to twelve -- an idea that MMJ advocates at the Cannabis Therapy Institute see as a de facto caregiver ban.

Councilwoman Jeanne Robb, who's behind the plan, denies that and insists that she's open-minded about complaints. But she also feels something needs to be done.

Robb notes that she "supported our regulations for the dispensary model in our commercial areas, and even in some of our mixed use areas, because I thought it would get the growing out of our residential areas -- and I think it's more appropriate to have it regulated in business areas than to have unregulated home grows in our residential areas."

For Robb, this issue came to a head over a grow "just off 7th Avenue in our district. It had 68 plants, and it took me four to five months to finally get it moved out of a residential unit. I went to law enforcement, to the DA, to city attorneys, to building inspectors, and said, 'Why does it take us so long to enforce something that shouldn't be in our neighborhood?' And they said, 'Because everything is so unclear.' And I said, 'We need to have some limits.'"

Amendment 20, the measure that legalized medical marijuana in Colorado, allows a caregiver to grow six plants per patient. That's why Robb settled on a maximum of twelve plants per caregiver in residential areas. "I think that's pretty liberal, and it doesn't seem like a hardship," she says, especially considering that larger grows "create mildew and odor for neighborhoods, and that can be a problem. Police have had seventy complaints from residential grows just since March.

"I'm not saying they're evil, but they definitely impact neighborhoods -- just like someone who has too many dogs. I'm not trying to make a value judgment, but I strongly believe in protecting residential neighborhoods in Denver."

With that in mind, Robb put forward her proposal on Monday for a first reading -- and it's moved forward in the process, with further discussion slated for September 20. (She pushed it back a few weeks because of Labor Day and a subsequent scheduling issue.) But she faces a number of obstacles.

For one thing, caregivers are currently allowed to look after five patients -- meaning they're legally entitled to grow up to thirty plants. Does that mean the Denver ordinance would have a constitutional issue? Or would the city's legal right to zone override such concerns? And how fair is it to ask caregivers with a small number of patients to rent spaces in business areas for so relatively few plants? Plus, there's also the matter of enforcing the measure. "We could add it to our public nuisance rules -- but that'd really get people riled up," Robb concedes.

Still, she says placing limits on growing in residential areas is "a discussion my constituents are asking me to have," in part because of worries about crime associated with home grows. "I asked the police department, and they said that since last year at this time, there have been nine residential burglaries, thirty robberies, five child-abuse/neglect cases, two homicides, one suicide, one theft from a motor vehicle, one theft of a gun, one child enticement and one case of criminal mischief" related to home grows. She adds that "security rules we put in place for commercial concerns" don't cover marijuana in residential areas.

At the same time, Robb stresses, "I'm not a person who has a closed mind, and if there's a real concern we can't answer another way, I'll certainly consider it" via the council's amendment process.

For example, "I heard from a guy who said he's a caregiver and a card holder and he grows for three other people in one person's house, because he and the other two live in an apartment. But if it meant that he could grow only twelve plants instead of twenty, would that be an unreasonable restriction? I'm struggling with that. After all, different illnesses require different amounts. So even though the state law allows for six plants, could someone get their medical needs met with three?"

She'll be trying to answer questions like these over the next several weeks, and she encourages people to contact her on the topic. "I don't really like the e-mails addressed to the council saying, 'Hey goobers, hey morons, everybody smokes marijuana, get over it,'" she points out. "That's not going to convince me." But she welcomes constructive conversation.

Presumably, then, she'll be receptive to a thoughtful letter sent to council members by Nicholas King of Alpine Herbal Wellness. Read it below:

Dear Councilperson _________________

With all due respect, I urge you to vote NO on CB 10-0607 which imposes unfair restrictions on the cultivation of medical marijuana in residences for MMJ caregivers.

First and foremost, this bill will further limit affordable patient access to medicines that are invaluable in either treating their conditions or enabling them to endure other debilitating medical procedures such as chemotherapy. The caregiver component of the medical marijuana industry provides the least expensive options to patients because caregivers do not have to endure the high costs of running a commercial grow, providing a retail environment, or paying the high state and local fees required for licensing. This bill has the unintended consequence of increasing the cost of medicine for citizens who already have limited financial resources.

While this bill would essentially eliminate caregiving in the City of Denver (and likely increase my own business as I have a licensed MMC) it is inherently unfair to thousands of patients who currently depend on private caregivers for their medicine.

I understand and respect the need for the city to have rules in place to guarantee that residential grow operations are safe for everyone involved. No doubt there are caregivers who have operations that are improperly ventilated; that are potential fire hazards due to improper electrical wiring; that are unsanitary, and more. However, this wholesale elimination of a class of our community is not the way to achieve safety for the citizenry.

A more valuable, and undoubtedly more difficult, approach would be for the City of Denver to do proper research into what parameters would constitute safe and sanitary residential grow operations and develop appropriate residential building codes for caregivers to follow. Yes, this will take time and resources, but the results will be based on knowledge of this aspect of the MMJ industry, not fear. These code requirements can then be promulgated to all registered caregivers and an inspection regimen established to ensure compliance.

I implore you to scrap this bill and task the appropriate zoning or building department with the responsibility to consult with caregivers in developing standards for safe, legal and sanitary cultivation of medical quality cannabis. Please contact me and I will be happy to provide you with a list of legitimate caregivers who would be willing to work with you and/or the zoning department to develop those standards.

The overwhelming majority of caregivers simply want to provide medical cannabis at affordable prices for patients most in need and at a price their patients can afford. And, I believe this is a right guaranteed by Amendment 20 of the Colorado constitution.

Respectfully yours,

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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