Massey pot bill hearing explores reality of current dispensary business

DENVER– A House Judiciary Committee hearing on a bill that seeks to regulate the burgeoning number of Colorado medical marijuana dispensaries Thursday featured strong praise and strong critiques of the proposed law from inside and outside the Old Senate Chamber here. The hearing amounted to a formal exploration of the state’s path-breaking pot industry, where existing law and the intent of voters were weighed in light of frank descriptions of how businesses are actually operating on the ground.

Dispensary pot product (A Greener Country)
Dispensary pot product (A Greener Country)

Dispensary owners testified in support of HB 1284 (pdf), sponsored Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, touting the legitimacy they said would come from regulation. The Attorney General’s Office testified against the bill, saying dispensaries were illegal. And protesters outside the standing-room only proceedings blasted their opposition through megaphones.

Massey’s bill would more clearly define the term “caregiver,” a central and ambiguous term in the law created by Amendment 20, passed by Colorado voters a decade ago. The legislation has been the more controversial of two medical marijuana bills making their way through the capitol this session. Massey’s bill has been modified multiple times already, even before making it to committee Thursday.

Contrary to initial reports, the bill doesn’t shut down medical marijuana dispensaries. In fact, it’s supported by a number of the state’s largest storefront pot shops and caregivers. Its main goal, proponents say, is to provide structure for all interested parties and to stop black market distribution of recreational pot.

The entrepreneurs

Collier Kear, a well-dressed father who owns Boulder dispensary Top Shelf Alternatives, testified that he invested $750,000 into his business, which sits on the third floor of a building just off the Pearl Street Mall directly across the street from the county courthouse. He was motivated, he said, because marijuana is the only medicine his son can safely use to treat his pain.

“My son had to go to rehab, because he was addicted to Oxycotin and then heroin. After he got out of rehab, he started treating his pain with marijuana. Now he is off [those] drugs and uses four different strains of marijuana to treat his pain.”

Kear said regulation was important for dealing not only with the black market issue of illegal marijuana, but also would make sure patients were getting quality product.

“We have a grow operation associated with our dispensary because we want to be able to control the quantity and quality of the product we provide to our patients,” Kear said. “We want to make sure we have the right stains and the right product and that it is safe. A product that is free of pesticides and free of mold. There are a lot of serious business people sitting back and watching what is going on here. If you give us the right regulations, you’ll see an incredible amount of money come into this business and you will see we are serious.”

Dispensary owners also spilled their operation secrets to the committee members. Kear said Top Shelf is the primary caregiver for 250 patients but has more than 800 members it serves as temporary caregiver. When asked about the difference between the two, Kerr clarified:

“We have 250 patients who we the primary caregiver for, and then we have folks who come in and we are their temporary caregiver for that day. We are not their primary caregiver, but if their primary caregiver isn’t able to provide them with their medicine, we dispense to them.”

Many dispensary owners, growers and medical marijuana advocates echoed Kear’s position saying they strongly supported the bill because it would provide security, regulation and legitimacy to the growing industry.

Matt Brown, of the Coloradans for Medical Marijuana Regulation, thanked the legislators for considering the bill, calling it “an unprecedented effort from our state legislators to recognize our legitimacy.”

The officers

Dispensary owners may be lobbying for HB 1284 bill, but Attorney General John Suthers’ office says the bill is flatly unconstitutional. Geoff Blue, who testified on behalf of Suthers, who is out of the state, said his office opposes the bill because it creates a dispensary model that voters did not approve. He also said regulating dispensaries would lead to back door legalization of marijuana and provided bad examples for Colorado’s youth.

“If the state is going to use a model where dispensaries are used, this should be decided by the voters not legislators,” Blue said.

But Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver, who said he was impressed with the professionalism he saw after touring a dispensary last week, was just one of a number of committee members who questioned Suthers’ reasoning, saying he understand that the marijuana sold in dispensaries was priced 4.5 times higher than marijuana on the street. The price, he said, would discourage recreational users from abusing the dispensary business.

Committee Chair Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, also grilled Bloom about the A.G.’s position, asking why a dispensary didn’t count as a legitimate caregiver. Bloom said that wasn’t the question, really, because dispensaries were illegal under state law in the first place.

“We need to be shutting down the dispensaries,” Blood said. “In my opinion they are illegal and they could be shut down if law enforcement chose to do so.”

Amendment 20 doesn’t mention the word dispensary, nor does it stipulate how medical marijuana patients should procure their medicine, except to say that the state shall not be the provider. The amendment defines a caregiver as anyone who has “significant responsibility for managing the well being of a patient.” The law does not require patients to assign a caregiver, nor does it put caps on the number of patients a caregiver can provide for, only the amount of marijuana patients can possess at one time.

The advocate

Outspoken medical marijuana attorney Robert Corry and a number of other pro-pot groups oppose the bill.

“It would create an unnecessary state bureaucracy, raise patients costs and restrict their access to medicine,” Corry said. “My clients lives literally depend on their access to this medicine and we will fight any government proposal that would restrict supply and raise costs such as this proposal.”

Corry was a featured speaker at the rally opposing the bill. Hosted by the Cannabis Therapy Institute, Mile High NORML, the Colorado 420 Coalition, Rocky Mountain Caregivers Cooperative and the Colorado Coalition for Patients and Caregivers, the protest was held on the west side of the capitol at noon in advance of the hearing. The groups continued their protest for more than five hours, holding forth outside the window below the meeting room.

If passed, HB 1284 would regulate dispensaries by creating a Medical Marijuana Licensing Authority. This board would be responsible for granting, refusing or renewing dispensary licenses after applicants receive local approval. The board’s decision would not be final and dispensary owner’s would be able to appeal their case in court within 30 days of the complaint being issued. The bill would also require the state board to petition the federal Drug Enforcement Agency to re-classify marijuana by Jan 1 2012, changing it from a Schedule I to a Schedule II narcotic, the category that contains medications like Ritalin and Adderall and pain killers like morphine.

The bill places limits on the cultivation of medical marijuana, only allowing registered patients, licensed primary caregivers and licensed medical marijuana centers to cultivate weed. If enacted, the bill will put a year moratorium on new dispensaries and then require them to be licensed through the newly created board before operating. Existing dispensaries – referred to as “medical marijuana centers” in the legislation – would have until July 1, 2011, to operate without a license, after which they will have to apply in the same manner as new centers, and only continue to operate if approved.

“A medical marijuana center may have a total of no more than 3,000 medical marijuana plants and no more than 1,000 ounces of medical marijuana in its inventory at one time.”

With 28 grams in one ounce and one gram going for an average of $15, that means a dispensary could have $420,000 worth of weed in its shop at any one time.

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