Colorado lawmakers have an unlikely ally in their first attempt to curb the state's booming medical marijuana industry: owners of the some of the shops that sell pot.
Many dispensary owners say they're on board with regulations if they give them uniform guidelines and avert a more severe crackdown like one approved this week in Los Angeles. Hundreds of Los Angeles pot shops face closure after the City Council voted Tuesday to cap the number of dispensaries in the city at 70.
The Colorado proposal - which a legislative committee approved 6-1 Wednesday - would make it more difficult for recreational pot users to become legal medical marijuana patients. It would bar doctors from working out of dispensaries, make it illegal for them to offer discounts to patients who agree to use a designated dispensary, and require follow-up doctor visits.
Most of the 150 people at the hearing opposed the bill. Many of them worry it will cost them hundreds of dollars on top of the $90 annual fee they pay to register as a medical marijuana user.
William Chengelis said he can't get his regular Veterans Administration doctors to sign off on medical marijuana and said buying pot illegally and paying the $100 fine would be cheaper than paying a private doctor for follow-up visits.
"I cannot afford this bill," Chengelis told lawmakers.
In response, the committee backed allowing the state to waive the $90 fee for those who can't afford it. Sponsor Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, said he would also see if there was a way to allow dispensaries to reimburse veterans for doctor visits.
While some advocates see any regulations as a violation of the medical marijuana law passed by voters in 2000, many dispensaries say they welcome the certainty that more regulation would provide.
"We're saying we really can't operate without any rules," said Matt Brown, a medical marijuana patient and leader of a coalition of about 150 dispensaries and over 1,000 patients.
Erik Santos, who operates a dispensary out of an office building in a trendy part of Denver's downtown section, thinks it makes sense to limit large marijuana growers to industrial areas and keep dispensaries out of residential areas. He wants lawmakers to pass laws now before even more dispensaries open up and prevent those with possible criminal ties from giving the industry a bad name.
Another bill still in the works could set up more regulations on dispensaries and suppliers.
Colorado cities are also looking to lawmakers to pass regulations. Hundreds of dispensaries have popped up across the state - in empty storefronts, office buildings and even a historic movie theater.
Some cities have passed moratoriums on pot shops as they figure out how to regulate them and wait for more guidance from the state. The Denver suburb of Centennial voted to ban dispensaries and close a shop that had already opened, but a court blocked that move.
"Everyone is waiting to see what happens this ( legislative ) session," said Mark Radtke, a lobbyist for the Colorado Municipal League.
Colorado already has some rules in place for medical marijuana dispensaries, including prohibiting dispensaries within 1,000 feet of schools, day cares and other dispensaries. Felons convicted within the last five years would be barred from running shops. Dispensary owners would have to be licensed, pass a criminal background check and pay a $2,000 application fee along with $3,000 a year to renew licenses.
The rules are set to take effect March 1, although they could change depending on what state lawmakers to decide to do.
Fear that dispensaries would attract crime has been raised by those concerned about the growth of dispensaries. But police in Denver are discounting that.
Police say medical marijuana dispensaries were robbed or burglarized at a lower rate than liquor stores or even banks last year. A memo reported by The Denver Post on Wednesday says they were hit at about the same rate as pharmacies.
January 27, 2010