Romer med marijuana bill up in smoke

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

If Colorado’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry is the Wild West — and few would dispute that characterization lately — there might be a new sheriff in town once state lawmakers have their say. But the dust raised by opposing sides won’t be easily settled.

Citing stubbornness by those lobbying for stricter regulation and by those opposing it, Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, abandoned his effort to craft a compromise bill this week and suggested that a strict measure backed by law enforcement officials might fill the void. Meanwhile, some medical marijuana advocates promised a fierce court battle and, as a last resort, a ballot initiative aimed at ensuring access to the drug if the Legislature adopts a bill they believe could strangle the industry in its infancy.

“[My] attempts to bring medical marijuana out of the shadows through a complex regulatory structure are now over,” Romer wrote in a despairing Huffington Post column that announced his plans to scrap drafts of wide-ranging legislation in favor of introducing a modest bill focused on the doctor-patient relationship.

“What a shame,” Romer wrote. “We really could have set the national model for medical marijuana, including research and sophisticated evidence-based medicine, but the same old fight on both sides — and the failed status quo — appears to have prevailed.”

State voters legalized medical marijuana with the adoption of Amendment 20 in 2000, but the industry remained mostly inchoate until last year, when changes at the federal level and a series of Colorado court and regulatory decisions got things rolling.

First, the Obama administration reversed a longstanding policy of prosecuting medical marijuana providers. Then a Denver District Court judge overturned a five-patient-per-caregiver limit imposed by state regulatory agencies, allowing businesses to supply the drug. In July, the Colorado Board of Health decided against reinstating the limit and also ruled that caregivers don’t have to do more than supply medical marijuana to meet state requirements.

After spending months negotiating among competing interests to craft a bill covering everything from licenses for growers to regulations for dispensaries, Romer reached an impasse last week when neither side would yield.

“Significant portions of law enforcement and the [medical marijuana] community are, at this point, unwilling to find common ground,” Romer noted. “Both sides are stuck and focused on their narrow needs and wants after a 30-year battle in the war on drugs.”

Romer warned that a more draconian piece of legislation proposed by the County Sheriffs of Colorado could become law. The sheriffs’ bill would abolish dispensaries — the medical marijuana businesses that have been springing up by the hundreds across the state in recent months — and re-establish a legal limit of five patients per caregiver.

“The five-patient limit has been brought back from the dead, and it’s the first thing we’re going to mobilize against,” said Matt Brown, executive director of Coloradans for Medical Marijuana Regulation, an organization representing patients and suppliers.

Brown said reinstituting the patient limit would turn the industry into a sprawling nightmare, requiring at least 13,000 official suppliers for the state’s estimated 65,000 registered medical marijuana patients, a number that has exploded in recent months and is growing daily.

“If you look at support for the limit, it’s not there,” he said.

The precise limit is still subject to negotiations, according to the executive director of the sheriff’s association, but there’s not a lot of latitude.

“It could be five or six — some reasonable number for a caregiver,” said Donald Christensen, who helped draft the initial proposal.

“We think the relationships between the caregivers and the patients is out of hand,” he said, noting that law enforcement officials also want to make sure the relationship between doctors and any referred patients is legitimate.

Christensen stressed that his organization’s proposal isn’t as harsh as it’s portrayed by its detractors.

“We’re trying to get it to a reasonable level that meets the needs of the original intent of (Amendment 20),” he said. “In no way do we intend to block medical marijuana from the legitimate needs of people, as intended in the original amendment.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by the bill’s potential sponsor, Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, who had intended to carry Romer’s bill in the House before Romer abandoned it.

“We need to make sure it works within a framework that does allow appropriate access to the dispensing of medical marijuana,” Massey said. “A legitimate user should not have difficulty obtaining medical marijuana.”

Denver attorney Rob Corry, who regularly defends medical marijuana clients and heads a trade group of suppliers and distributors, doesn’t think the sheriffs’ bill will allow legitimate patients to gain access to medical marijuana.

“We’re strongly opposed to the sheriffs’ bill. If, by some miracle, it passes, it would easily be enjoined in court,” he said, calling it “blatantly unconstitutional.”

Corry said he’s drafting a proposal he’d like to see legislators consider instead. But, if they don’t — or if they pass more restrictive legislation, like Massey’s bill — the next step would be to take it to the voters.

Corry said his ballot initiative probably would be statutory, rather than a constitutional amendment, “to avoid the single-topic rule,” and would cover everything from clarifying the caregiver definition and requiring quality control mechanisms for the drug to funding a research program at state institutions and establishing reciprocity for medical marijuana patients from other states.

“We’re going to have it poised and ready to start gathering signatures,” Corry said, adding that his group has a “substantial funding commitment” to get a measure on the ballot and conduct a vigorous campaign this fall.

Until then, Corry promises a real fight at the Capitol.

“This is a major battle, and if (lawmakers) think they can get this done quickly and quietly, they’ve got another thing coming,” he said. “We’re going to have a thousand patients at the Capitol whose lives depend on medical marijuana.”

Brown doesn’t like to think a ballot measure is only recourse left for medical marijuana advocates and continues to hope for a legislative solution.

“I don’t think there is industry support for that,” he said. “We’re not at the point where we’re saying, ‘Forget it! Let’s go for a ballot measure.’”

While acknowledging that medical marijuana advocates “lost a fair amount of momentum” following Romer’s decision to drop his sweeping legislation, Brown predicts that the factions will regroup and emerge with “responsible regulations” this session.

“There is a very real feeling across the state — not just in the Legislature, not just the industry — that, one way or another, we need to address this issue and put forth a good faith effort to come up with some rules,” Brown said.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com