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Medical marijuana debate takes shape for Colorado legislators

Colorado — The debate facing Colorado legislators on medical marijuana regulation is taking shape with the release of two draft bills, one from state Sen. Chris Romer, a Denver Democrat who has taken a lead role on the issue, and the other, much tougher bill from the County Sheriffs of Colorado.

Romer’s legislation would create a medical marijuana licensing board, similar to the state liquor board, to issue licenses to “medical marijuana clinics” (not dispensaries) and commercial growers who supply medical marijuana patients. Each license would be the subject of a public hearing, and licensees would have to pass background checks and show they and their business partners are “of good moral character.”

The bill also allows local communities to regulate the number of dispensaries within their borders and charge higher sales taxes on medical marijuana than on general retail.

Clinics would have to file patient care plans with the state to demonstrate they do more for patients than just sell them pot.

The law enforcement bill, in contrast, makes no provision for retail-style dispensaries, even those with patient care plans. It would limit caregivers to no more than five patients.

It was the decision by the state Board of Health last summer to lift the limit on the number of patients any one caregiver could have that allowed the proliferation of dispensaries in the latter half of 2009. And it was that proliferation, in turn, that led to the calls for increased regulation, not least from Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett, who said the law had too many gray areas and needed clarification.

For example, dispensary owners derive their right to operate from their status as “caregivers,” an odd term for someone who runs a retail establishment, while growers who supply medical marijuana businesses exist in a legal limbo.

Garnett said a lot of people have asked his opinion, probably because he’s been speaking publicly for months about medical marijuana, both about the benefits to law enforcement of focusing on more serious crime and the need for more regulation, and he plans to get involved in the legislative debate.

He’s meeting this week with Romer, representatives of the county sheriffs’ association and Gov. Bill Ritter before formally announcing his support for one of the bills. But based on the draft language, he said he’s much more likely to support the Romer bill.

“The problem I have with the law enforcement bill is that it tries to turn back the clock,” he said.

The law enforcement bill also would require that caregivers do more than just provide marijuana and would bar caregivers from employing people to help them grow or distribute marijuana.

Dispensary owners and medical marijuana advocates said they have concerns about both bills, though they strongly support some elements in the Romer bill, like the creation of a license for growers.

Larry Hill — a Longmont dispensary owner and president of the American Medical Marijuana Standards Association, a Colorado trade association of dispensary owners and patient advocates — said his colleagues just want equal treatment.

They’re willing to accept the same sorts of regulations that govern other businesses, he said, but they don’t think their industry should be singled out for special treatment as more dangerous or detrimental to the community.

“Everybody who has something to say about this is trying to put in back in the black market,” he said, referring to regulations that would make it difficult for existing dispensaries to stay in business.

Romer’s bill puts a lot of new requirements on dispensaries. In addition to filing patient care plans, dispensaries would have to keep publicly available records that details how much marijuana they’re selling to how many patients, and they would have to report patients who buy more than two ounces a week.

What’s needed, Hill said, is clarity about the legality of dispensaries and growing operations, not onerous requirements.

“Nobody knows what guidelines they’re supposed to follow,” he said.

Both bills would require that doctors who recommend marijuana have seen the patient before the recommendation and provide follow-up care. They also would allow the Department of Public Health and Environment to conduct reviews of doctors who write a disproportionate number of recommendations.

Statewide, just five doctors have written almost half of all recommendations, according to the state health department, which requested legislation to more closely regulate the doctor-patient relationship.

Just because a doctor writes a disproportionate number of recommendations doesn’t mean the recommendations aren’t appropriate, Hill said.

“So many doctors in Colorado are afraid to sign one of these recommendations because of the repercussions,” he said.

By Erica Meltzer