Senator Chris Romer at the marijuana fair: F-bombs mixed with kindness

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Senator Chris Romer, who's authored proposed legislation to regulate medical marijuana in Colorado, is a contentious figure in debate about the issue. He believes many younger people with medical marijuana licenses are exaggerating their illnesses in order to smoke weed legally, and he feels his reform concepts will lead to the closure of perhaps half the state's dispensaries.

Even so, he belatedly accepted an invitation to attend Sunday's Cannabis Holiday Health Fair, sponsored by the Cannabis Therapy Institute. CTI, which also invited Denver city councilman Charlie Brown (he turned up, too), had planned to set up a camera so that attendees could share their opinions with the senator, but Romer's appearance gave folks the chance to share their views with him directly -- and man, did they.

"No one threw bong water at me, but it came pretty close," he says. "I wasn't physically threatened, but I did have some people yelling at me and throwing F-bombs."

Others actually gave his ideas a chance, and he returned the favor. For instance, he came away with a fresh sense of alarm about "contaminants and pesticides in edibles and tinctures. I think we need to immediately address the situation.

"We need to have standards when it comes to contaminants, particularly mold," he continues. "When somebody almost loses a crop either to mold or spider mites, these things get treated with pesticides or mold gets thrown into the mix of tinctures and hash oil and all this other stuff. And it puts people at risk.

"I'm really frustrated with the health department. Their job should be protecting the public health. But they're so focused on the idea of 21st Century reefer madness that they've missed a real health problem. You've got vulnerable, sick people being exposed to pathogens like mold, and instead of trying to regulate this industry, they've tried to shove it into back alleys and parking lots -- shove it back underground. They're totally failing to protect public health in this area. The fact that we haven't already mandated some kind of association group to do testing of these contaminants is a public-health outrage."

This particular stance likely endeared Romer to a percentage of the fair attendees, and so, too, did his argument that the state should protect licensed growers who play by all of Colorado's rules from potential federal prosecution down the line -- the focus of a Denver Post article published earlier today.

"I think they were honestly stunned that I understood the tension that's been created by thirty years of the war on drugs," Romer says of those at the fair. "At least five people in that room had felony convictions for trying to serve patients, so I know the issue of a setting up a database for growers, and requiring transparency and cooperation with law enforcement, is a very big ask for them. And if we're going to ask that of them, we have to provide them with some level of assurance that we'd defend them from some future drug enforcement administration that has different policies than the current one."

When the subject turned to Romer's view that a panel be set up to judge whether potential medical marijuana patients age 21 or younger really deserve the state's sanction to smoke pot, things took an uglier turn.

"Some people were truly in the holiday spirit. They were kind to me, truly gracious, and some people were concerned about my reaction to some of the other people -- the ones who said some very angry and nasty things to me."

No need for concern: "I have pretty thick skin," Romer notes. But he thinks cooler heads should prevail -- especially because he feels flexibility is key if meaningful medical marijuana legislation is to pass.

"A year ago, this community was 95 percent underground. And now that they're above ground, I asked them, 'Are you willing to give back everything you've gained in the last year in order to fight for recreational marijuana users under the age of 21?'"

In his view, "90 percent of the people there understood what I was saying. They don't want to lose all the gains the medical marijuana community has made. But for 10 percent of them, nothing short of legalization will satisfy them. In no way, shape or form will they ever compromise. And if that group -- the Ganja Gourmet, Dr. Reefer, F-bomb group -- became the face of this movement, we're dead on arrival.

"They say, 'You're being irrational. Look at liquor. Look at binge drinking.' But that's not the way politics works. I've talked to PTAs and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and if they believe the medical marijuana community is going to put their middle schoolers at risk of having access to pot on the playground, that's it. The whole debate is over."

Romer acknowledges that some people under 21 have legitimate health issues that might make medical marijuana a reasonable treatment option. An example: a fifteen-year old on the registry whose story "was enormously tragic and heartbreaking," he says. "But there's nothing in my bill that would prevent them, or that would prevent young veterans, from getting access to medical marijuana. They'd just have to take an extra step."

He adds that he's open to other notions. "I've put the question in the community's court. If they can come up with a better solution than my medical-review panel, that's fine. I'm looking forward to their ideas.

"I understand that I don't have this perfect," Romer concedes, after pointing out that his most recent draft of legislation has already undergone major changes. "But that's why I listen so hard every time I go out -- and they need to do some listening, too. I'll defend everybody's right for free speech, but I just need to warn that some of that speech is doing tremendous harm to people in the medical marijuana community who want to see progress. Which is why we need to have some adult conversations about this issue."

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