When Colorado voters passed an amendment in 2000 allowing medical marijuana use, it was not clear that they were giving the go-ahead to launch hundreds of over-the-counter pot shops across the state.
Yet that's the reality. Retail marijuana dispensaries now can be found in nearly every community in Colorado, with many popping up seemingly overnight after the Obama administration's Justice Department announced in February that it would no longer raid dispensaries in states that have legalized medical marijuana as long as they abide by state law.
Enter the state legislature, which is prepared to jump into the fray in January with proposals aimed at creating a regulatory framework for the drug's usage, sale and oversight.
The debate is likely to boil down to a choice between a dispensary model that allows the system to operate largely as it does now, and a model based on law enforcement that shuts down the storefronts in favor of newly licensed "caregivers," most of whom likely would be medical professionals such as doctors and nurses.
Whatever happens, lawmakers in other states will be watching. Fourteen states have legalized medical marijuana to some degree, but none has enacted a statewide regulatory framework — not even California, which houses by far the most medical marijuana dispensaries.
"California's system looks like a patchwork quilt. It's done county by county," said Brian Vicente, executive director of Sensible Colorado, the largest medical marijuana advocacy group in the state. "That's why it's exciting for Colorado to take this on and provide a model for the nation."
State Sen. Chris Romer, a Democrat and son of former Gov. Roy Romer, has drawn up legislation that would provide more oversight and restrictions over the dispensary system while allowing it to operate in largely the same manner. His proposal would create a state licensing authority, similar to the one that oversees alcohol merchants, that would be responsible for the bulk of the industry's rule-making.
The Romer bill also would raise from 18 to 21 the age at which a patient could legally obtain marijuana for medical use. A proposal to raise the age to 25 came under heated opposition from medical marijuana advocates. A review board would consider requests for the drug by patients younger than 21.
The medical marijuana community is expected to throw its support behind the Romer bill, especially given alternatives. Another bill, backed by law enforcement, would effectively shut down the state's dispensaries in favor of licensing only individual caregivers, who could distribute medical marijuana to no more than five patients per year.
That option may appeal to lawmakers who are concerned that dispensaries have basically legalized marijuana. While some of the dispensaries maintain a professional, pharmaceutical appearance, others look more like the so-called "head shops" of the 1960s.
Amendment 20, the 2000 referendum that legalized medical marijuana, permitted the drug's use for patients with "debilitating medical conditions," which include multiple sclerosis and cancer, but also could be interpreted as difficult-to-confirm conditions such as headaches or back pain.
State Sen. Kevin Lundberg, a Republican who has not announced how he will vote, said he was concerned that some patients are receiving the drug for relatively minor conditions.
"They're bending the rules here, providing more for recreation than medicine," Mr. Lundberg said. "What I want to do is to roll things back and have it available only to those who really need it, and that's it."
Indeed, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration takes a dim view of the whole medical marijuana experiment, saying that "smoked marijuana has not withstood the rigors of science" and denying that it targets sick people.
"DEA targets criminals engaged in cultivation and trafficking, not the sick and dying. No state has legalized the trafficking of marijuana, including [states] that have decriminalized certain marijuana use," the agency says on its site.
Jessica Peck Corry, a lawyer and Republican medical marijuana advocate, said that any system dispensing pharmaceuticals would be subject to abuse. She said the No. 1 cause of accidental death in Colorado is overdose of prescription drugs.
Mrs. Corry represented CannaMart, a medical marijuana dispensary, in a lawsuit against the city of Centennial, which had shut down the shop because it violated federal drug laws.
A district court judge ruled against the city Wednesday, saying the business was operating legally under state law.
"What we have now is a system that, with a few exceptions, operates very well," Mrs. Corry said. "You hear patients saying, 'I'm getting the care and services I need.' We need to acknowledge that prescription-drug overdose is a much greater threat than medical marijuana."
Fourteen states have approved medical marijuana. Dispensaries have begun to open in about half of them, Mr. Vicente said. Twenty other state legislatures are expected to consider similar bills in 2010. In Arizona, advocacy groups are pushing for a medical marijuana initiative on the November 2010 ballot.
"We hope to find common ground here in Colorado, but history tells us that law enforcement is bent on destroying medical marijuana," Mr. Vicente said. "I think we're going to have a fight on our hands."
By Valerie Richardson
January 4, 2010
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Drug skeptics fear Colorado going to pot