Boulder patients, dispensary owners in legal limbo debate the way forward
Todd Young is concerned.
His lawyer assures him the grow operation and members-only dispensary he runs from a nondescript North Boulder warehouse is on the right side of the ambiguous regulations that constitute medical marijuana law in Colorado today. That doesn't stop him from worrying about what will happen if he's pulled over on the way home and the police officer catches a whiff of the plants he spends his days tending.
Pierre Werner is cashing in.
Across the street from the University of Colorado, a neon pot leaf superimposed over a medical cross beckons customers to his business, DrReefer.com. Werner relocated from Nevada because here he can actually sell marijuana instead of just charging patients for a referral.
Judith Straffin is confused.
When the 66-year-old Longmont resident finally got a marijuana recommendation from her doctor after suffering more than a decade of debilitating, undiagnosed pain, she had no idea where to go to get her medicine.
The rapid proliferation of retail dispensaries in Boulder County and across the state and the newfound visibility of medical marijuana nine years after voters approved Amendment 20 has left many wondering if they are seeing the de facto legalization of the drug.
Hope that this is the case has emboldened marijuana activists, while fear of back-door legalization has sparked a political backlash that could lead to tighter regulations at the state level.
"We cannot have a Wild West-type situation where we have dispensaries on every corner like convenience stores," said state Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, who plans to introduce legislation next year that would eliminate retail-style dispensaries and place extra scrutiny on patients under 25.
Activists say lawmakers are rushing to solve a problem that doesn't exist. All that's changed, they say, is that medical marijuana has come out of the closet.
"People think this is something new," said Laura Kriho of the Boulder-based Cannabis Therapy Institute, an advocacy group. "All that's new is it's coming out of the black market. This is what the legalization of a previously criminal enterprise looks like."
Activists, dispensary owners and patients say two key changes in the last year brought medical marijuana into the open.
First, the Obama administration in February announced it would not enforce federal marijuana laws in states that allow for medical marijuana.
For Nederland dispensary owner Mark Rose that was the reassurance his investors needed to commit to his plans for a shop. For several years, he had been supplying patients with medical marijuana discreetly from his home. In June, he opened Grateful Meds.
The second change was a decision by the state health department in July to not cap the number of patients who could be seen by any one caregiver. That opened the door to the dispensary model, in which one or two caregivers have dozens or even hundreds of patients.
There were just four dispensaries in Boulder before that ruling. Since August, at least another 57 marijuana-based operations have applied for business licenses from the city. That includes 21 businesses just this month.
Despite the proliferation of dispensaries and the existence of doctors who specialize in marijuana recommendations, it's not always easy for patients to know what to do.
Straffin, the Longmont patient, has suffered from severe pain centered in her sacroiliac joint -- where the base of the spine meets the pelvis -- for years, but she didn't think she qualified for medical marijuana because she didn't have cancer or AIDS. Only this year, when she started to hear about other patients with severe chronic pain, did she approach her doctor.
She had no idea how to find a dispensary, she said.
"I never smoked pot before, even though I went to Berkeley in the 60s," she said. "How am I supposed to know the Little Dog is a head shop?"
Even with the new openness, those running straight retail operations still run a risk.
"The more well-being care you offer, the more likely you are to fit the definition," said Eric Moutz, a Boulder attorney who advises a number of marijuana-based businesses. "You need to have a substantial, holistic and lasting relationship with your patient."
The result is that nearly every dispensary has a massage chair in the corner or room that will -- any day now -- be converted into space for a massage therapist or an acupuncturist.
Moutz said the state Legislature should simply legalize straight retail operations. Businesses shouldn't have to pretend to be something they're not to run a legal business.
But Stephen Kaplan and Shaun Gindy, owners of Louisville dispensary Compassionate Pain Management, said they wouldn't operate any other way.
"This has been our vision from day one -- a holistic healing center that happens to be a dispensary," Kaplan said. "We have patients who don't even use marijuana."
Their offices next to a Subway sandwich shop smell like bread, not marijuana, and look no different than a typical doctor's office. They have two private rooms with professional massage tables and contract with a Chinese herbalist, Reiki healers and medical intuitives.
Kaplan and Gindy would have little to worry about if Romer has his way in the state Senate. He wants to see the word "dispensary" disappear and have all medical marijuana distributed in health care settings.
But even if Romer's legislation is adopted as proposed, it likely will face court challenges.
"Anything that limits the patient's right to access medical marijuana ultimately won't pass muster," said Jeff Gard, another Boulder attorney who advises marijuana business owners and represents patients charged with marijuana-related crimes. "They think they're trying to regulate a business, but really they're limiting patient access. The dispensaries don't exist separately from the patient's right to access marijuana."
Even as medical marijuana activists insist they'll win any court battles, many dispensary owners are pushing for voluntary guidelines that include staying away from schools, foregoing signs with large pot leaves on them or names that rely on puns about weed, pot or chronic and generally keeping a low profile.
Gard's a big supporter of that approach, but not everyone in the community agrees.
Kathleen Chippi of the Cannabis Healing Arts in Nederland said staying away from schools implies dispensaries are dangerous.
"My kid can walk into a grocery store and purchase a bottle of aspirin. Aspirin is far more dangerous than marijuana, but we don't say keep grocery stores away from schools," she said.
That this debate remains so heated is evidence marijuana is still very much illegal, Gard said.
"We wouldn't be having an hour-long conversation about it (if it were legal). There wouldn't be three different bills being floated in the Legislature," he said. "People wouldn't be asking (Boulder County Sheriff Drug Task Force Cmdr.) Tommy Sloan if he thinks there are too many dispensaries in town. Nobody asks Tommy Sloan if he thinks there are too many bookstores in Boulder."
By Erica Meltzer
November 14, 2009
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Medical marijuana industry's growth spurs backlash