Longform

The history of cannabis in Colorado...or how the state went to pot

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The amendment permitted medical marijuana use for people with chronic weight loss, muscle spasms, seizures, severe pain and severe nausea; caretakers were to "dispense" this medicine after doctors had prescribed it. The program went online in June 2001, despite warnings from then-Attorney General Ken Salazar that any doctors who issued such prescriptions could face federal charges. (While some doctors have faced state sanctions in recent years, none have been prosecuted federally for prescribing pot.)

While the medical marijuana industry was evolving, activists continued to push for recreational use of marijuana. In 2005, Mason Tvert's newly founded Safer Alternatives to Recreational Enjoyment pushed — and passed — resolutions at Colorado State University and CU demanding that cannabis penalties be no worse than penalties for alcohol offenses on campus. That same year, SAFER put a measure on the Denver ballot that would decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by anyone over the age of twenty. When Denver voters approved the proposal, the Mile High City became the first major city in the country to make such a move — even though it was mostly symbolic and simply reinforced the state's 1975 decriminalization laws.

Still, it was seen as a win for the cannabis community, and it inspired SAFER to push for a similar statewide measure in 2006 that only received 40 percent of the vote. In 2007, SAFER again focused on Denver, which this time approved making marijuana possession the city's lowest police priority.

And soon a lot more people would be possessing marijuana — legally.

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For nearly a decade after the passage of Amendment 20, the medical marijuana program in this state was small, mostly underground, and run by a few pioneering caregivers like the late Ken Gorman, who famously advertised in Westword for his services; these caregivers were overseen by the Department of Public Health and Environment.

But in 2007, Denver District Judge Larry Naves ruled that these caregivers were not limited to five patients, as the law had previously been interpreted. That, along with a broad definition of the amendment's language allowing caregivers to "dispense," was enough to inspire eager ganja-preneurs to open actual medical marijuna dispensaries, which had already begun popping up in California. They were further encouraged by the election of President Barack Obama in November 2008. By early 2009, there were dozens of dispensaries in Denver, and later that year, Naves again pushed the industry with a liberal interpretation of caregiver. By September 2009, there were enough dispensaries in the metro area that Westword started advertising for a pot critic.

But most would still say the real green rush was triggered on October 19, 2009, when Deputy Attorney General David Ogden wrote a memo to all U.S. Attorneys advising them to consider the enforcement of federal drug laws among their lowest priorities when dealing with states' legal medical marijuana patients and programs. The Ogden Memo, as it has become known, seemed to give the official go-ahead to the state's evolving dispensary system. And in response, the number of official MMJ patients jumped from just under 20,000 at the start of October 2009 to more than 100,000 by the following July.

By 2010, the dispensary boom had become a major issue for Colorado politicians, who crafted House Bill 10-1284 in an attempt to regulate and guide (and in many ways, rein in) the fledgling MMJ industry that had been operating in a largely unfettered manner to that point. The measure established operating hours, security requirements and plant-monitoring procedures for dispensaries; required that dispensaries — now known as "centers" — grow 70 percent of the marijuana they sell; and prohibited former drug felons from working in the industry. The bill also allowed for cities and counties to enact their own bans against retail marijuana sales — and so far, more than eighty have. Most important, HB 1284 created a new branch of the Department of Revenue: the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division, which is funded primarily by dispensary license and application fees.

At the same time Colorado officials were trying to come to grips with one new marijuana industry, some cannabis activists were already pushing to create another one. In the summer of 2011, there were several legalization proposals being considered by various factions, including one by the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, headed by Tvert and attorney Brian Vicente. But only their proposal had the momentum to make it onto the ballot, as Amendment 64, which Coloradans will vote on next week.

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William Breathes
Contact: William Breathes