Tom Massey on his medical marijuana bill: "We know we're on the right track if nobody's happy"

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When Representative Tom Massey spoke to Westword on January 15 about the medical marijuana bill he was assembling, he described dispensaries as "a loophole in the law" -- the kind of language that warmed the heart of Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, who has long wanted to put the medical marijuana genie back into the bottle.

But last week, when Massey's bill was introduced, dispensaries (renamed "centers") were very much a part of the proposal, rousing the ire of Suthers, who sent a letter to legislators making it clear the bill was no longer to his liking. As for Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente, a medical marijuana advocate, he wasn't wholly negative toward the proposal, but he's readying a ballot measure in case the final version falls short of his standards.

Where's that leave Massey? In his words, "we know we're on the right track if nobody's happy."

Massey confirms that "the law-enforcement bill was the framework for our bill. We started with that as a model."

Even so, he doesn't regret moving away from the no-dispensary approach Suthers prefers.

"The Attorney General does his job, but my job is a little different in the sense that we have to craft something in this building that we can pass, even though there may be a hundred disparate views on the issue," he says. "So my bill is more of a compromise that makes sure we can effectively address the issue with legislation. So it's a pretty significant deviation from the original position that law enforcement was espousing."

One reason for keeping dispensaries/centers in the mix, Massey notes, is his sense that completely removing them might be problematic from a constitutional standpoint. But practicality plays a part, too, especially when it comes to "the number of cards we're going to have.

"Let's face it: By the time we finish this session and something can be enacted, we could have as many as 60,000-plus medical marijuana registry cards out there, and I don't see it as feasible that we could craft a supply chain based on people's basements across the state, or self-grows. And that would actually force us to go elsewhere for product -- out of state or I don't even want to speculate where.

"The horse is out of the barn, and we need to address the problems with today's facts."

Regarding the decision to make dispensaries/centers nonprofits, Massey says he didn't look upon California, which takes this approach, as a blueprint.

"Originally, we talked about them being full nonprofits," he allows. "But in discussions with folks who are more on the pro side of the issue -- the advocates of medical marijuana -- they had a problem with that, because they couldn't be federal nonprofits." After all, marijuana remains a schedule one narcotic on the federal level even if its medical use is sanctioned in the Colorado constitution.

Still, Massey continues, "we thought that if we could make them nonprofits at the state level, we could at least hope to control costs and keep costs down for the patient. Plus, I think the perception of it being a nonprofit industry will help keep folks in who are truly in it for the right reasons."

One of the most controversial portions of the bill involves passages that appear to give cities the opportunity to essentially ban dispensaries within their boundaries. Critics of this approach fear that patients who live in locations where dispensaries are disallowed will be treated be second-class citizens from the standpoint of easily obtaining their medication. Massey doesn't dismiss this gripe out of hand.

"I won't deny that should cities enact significant restrictions, it could create areas that have better access than others," he says. "But given that we have three different venues of action [self-grows, marijuana provided by caretakers and centers], we haven't precluded patients from finding a source. All we're doing is supporting local control, not telling cities how to deal with their own zoning laws or regulatory framework. But they'll have to defend any challenges that would be associated with a blanket denial."

Is that Massey's way of saying any ban will almost certainly prompt a slew of lawsuits?

"I don't know about a slew," he responds, "but they will have to be prepared to defend their position, no doubt."

Also sure to prompt opposition is language that would disallow many kinds of medical marijuana advertising. Line ads without art, logos and so on would be allowed, but not more elaborate offerings - a limitation likely to be fought by publications like this one, which has been generating a sizable chunk of revenue from medical marijuana businesses. But Massey doesn't portray this as a hard-and-fast position.

"We're somewhat flexible on that," he says. "I think we're going to see a natural weeding-out process" in terms of the number of centers in operation," which we would have seen in any circumstance given the competition and the number of cards and dispensaries. But part of the problem with the industry is that it's suddenly become highly visible, and for people who don't have a need for the product or a real sympathy for it, they may find it offensive. So that's what we're trying to do: protect the patient and the provider, but try to keep it where it's not so blatantly in your face, so to speak."

On Friday, Representative Ken Summers, a co-sponsor of Massey's bill, thought the legislation might reach the judiciary committee as early as Monday. That didn't happen, and Massey doesn't believe its arrival there is imminent.

"Believe it or not, we actually have some other business down here besides medical marijuana," he says. "We're trying to get through some of the budget issues, so we probably won't see it in committee for another two weeks."

When the measure finally does take the spotlight, Massey suspects some law-enforcement officials will speak out against aspects of it. But he thinks many of them are able to put the situation in perspective, and he hopes advocates will be able to do likewise.

"On one side of the equation, you have members of law enforcement who, from an idealistic standpoint, may not all be in favor of Amendment 20. But they also consider it to be a viable constitutional amendment, and the people have clearly spoken. And on the other side, you've got people who would like to see full legalization, which was not the intent of Amendment 20. So we're trying to strike a middle ground."

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