State lawmakers today unveiled a bill that would make major changes to Colorado's medical-marijuana industry, allowing retail-style dispensaries to remain open, but forcing them to re-organize as licensed, non-profit "health centers."
The bill would also place an 18-month moratorium on new commercial dispensaries. The bill also would require dispensaries to grow the majority of the marijuana they sell, thus eliminating freelance growers.
Perhaps most significantly, the bill would draw a crucial distinction between small-scale and large-scale medical-marijuana providers.
Small-scale providers — people growing and supplying marijuana to five or fewer patients — would not have to be licensed and would qualify for the protection the medical-marijuana section of Colorado's constitution gives to "caregivers."
Large-scale providers, like dispensaries, would have less statutory protection, meaning cities and counties would have broad authority to regulate or even ban them from their communities.
"That's not a right in the constitution," state Sen. Chris Romer, a Denver Democrat who is one of the bill's sponsors, said of dispensaries. "That's a privilege we're going to grant them with a license. If you want to organize yourself as a medical-marijuana center, then you have to play by the rules we set forth."
The announcement of the bill, which is expected to be formally introduced this afternoon, drew sharp reactions from a handful of medical-marijuana advocates who attended the news conference unveiling its details.
Afterwards, Carla Boyd, a medical-marijuana patient and caregiver, told Romer she thought the bill would lead to monopolization in the industry. Dispensaries that couldn't afford the new requirements for growing or security would be run out of business, she said.
"You're taking away a lot of jobs," she said. "...This is the Wal-Mart of medical-marijuana, and it's not right."
Brian Vicente, the executive director of the medical-marijuana patient-advocacy organization Sensible Colorado, took a milder approach but still raised concerns.
Of the provision that could allow communities to ban marijuana clinics, Vicente said, "it could be seen as a significant weakening of the constitution. We don't need patients bussing to get medicine."
He said his organization has no objection to requiring dispensaries to operate as non-profits.
However, Vicente said he plans tomorrow to file a proposed ballot initiative with the state to take dispensary regulations directly to the voters.
The proposed initiative — which would need about 75,000 signatures to make the ballot — is a hedge in case lawmakers pass regulations the cannabis community finds unacceptable.
"State-licensed medical marijuana patients need storefront dispensaries in the same way that other sick Coloradans need pharmacies," Vicente said in a statement accompanying the announcement of the proposed initiative. "Medical marijuana patients will not go without medicine in Colorado."
The debate over medical-marijuana at the state Capitol this session has been the focus of an intense lobbying battle between law enforcement groups, which want to eliminate retail marijuana dispensaries, and medical-marijuana advocates, some of whom favor as few government regulations on the industry as possible.
Other medical-marijuana groups have been lobbying behind the scenes for moderate regulations on the booming industry, hoping that some government oversight will professionalize and legitimize the business.
Mike Saccone, a spokesman for state Attorney General John Suthers, said his office needs to review the bill more before taking a formal position on it. But he said the attorney general believes retail dispensaries are outside of what voters intended when they approved Amendment 20, the constitutional provision that legalized medical-marijuana in Colorado.
"Amendment 20 clearly laid out a model that, until a year ago, was doing pretty well with just patients and caregivers," Saccone said.
By John Ingold
February 3, 2010
Lawmakers: Dispensaries stay, but as non-profits in Colorado