Medical marijuana bill hashed out in committee

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Colorado lawmakers moved a step closer to setting rules for retail medical marijuana distribution with the House Judiciary Committee’s approval March 22 of an amended bill by Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs.

Members of the House Judiciary Committee and a packed hearing room listen to Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, second from right, discuss a proposed amendment to HB 1284, a bill to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries, Monday at the State Capitol.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Under changes adopted to House Bill 1284, it will be harder for municipalities to ban medical marijuana stores outright, but local jurisdictions will still be able to restrict locations of the outlets using zoning laws. The revised version of the bill also allows store owners to buy slightly more marijuana from outside sources, lets patients grow their own herb even if they’re buying from a dispensary, and designates the first $2 million raised through taxes each year to fund substance abuse programs.

The committee killed a proposal to ban smoking as a method of ingesting medical marijuana but agreed that when patients do smoke their medicine, they’ll have to comply with smoking laws.

Committee members considered a series of amendments designed to address concerns raised by medical marijuana patients and caregivers at a marathon hearing held on the bill late into the night two weeks earlier. The panel didn’t take any testimony at the March 22 hearing but still witnessed a standing-room only crowd, albeit in a smaller hearing room.

“We’re taking an approach to marijuana in this bill that does view it as medicinal,” said Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Claire Levy, D-Boulder, after Massey first presented a series of adjustments to his original bill.

Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, left, confers with Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on a bill to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries Monday at the State Capitol.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“Based on the input to the committee stakeholders had,” Massey said, “we’ve been able to compromise on certain issues.”

The committee adopted the initial set of amendments without much discussion, loosening criminal background restrictions on dispensary owners, allowing patients to immediately chose another dispensary if their supplier’s license has been suspended, and allowing designated “caregivers” to serve more than three times the number of patients in localities where dispensaries have been banned.

Lawmakers shot down proposals to allow on-site consumption of the medicine by smoking or vaporization while allowing patients to consume edible medicine at dispensaries, so long as it’s done in a designated area away from the retail counter. The allowance helps patients who are forbidden from consuming medical marijuana at home, Massey noted, including less affluent patients who reside in federal housing.

Also, Massey pointed out, “It wouldn’t be damaging to surrounding businesses,” which he contrasted to smoking or vaporizing the drug. “Vapor products put a significant marijuana odor into the air,” he said, weighing in against that amendment.

Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, presented a scaled-back amendment calling on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to hold hearings on whether to include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on the state list of approved conditions for recommending medical marijuana. An earlier Pace proposal would have added PTSD to the list, following recent action taken by the New Mexico state government.

House Judiciary Committee members Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, right, and Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, listen to the debate on a bill to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries Monday at the State Capitol.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“I think it’s just fair to ask (the health department) to look at it,” Pace said, noting that veterans would particularly benefit from the change to state policy.

Saying she was reluctant to start a “laundry list” of conditions, Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, questioned whether Pace’s proposal was something legislators should consider.

“It’s not our job to identify one particular condition,” Levy agreed before calling for a vote that saw Pace’s PTSD amendment go down 5-6.

Colorado voters enshrined medical marijuana use for a limited number of conditions in the state constitution a decade ago with the approval of Amendment 20, but the measure didn’t include dispensaries. Those sprung up last year following a series of decisions by federal and state authorities that loosened restrictions on the medical marijuana business, which proceeded to explode statewide.

Instead of roughly 2,000 medical marijuana patients procuring their medicine from several hundred designated “caregivers,” which is how the medical marijuana trade existed for much of the decade, now more than 60,000 Coloradans carry state-issued medical marijuana cards and a thriving retail industry has grown up to serve their needs.

Left unaddressed by the House committee were complaints by prosecutors and police, who have expressed nearly uniform opposition to any bill that legitimizes retail sales of medical marijuana.

While he roundly rejected the bill in its initial form, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers was even less enthused about changes the Judiciary Committee made this week.

“The attorney general is still opposed to the bill in spite of the changes that were made,” said Suthers spokesman Mike Saccone. “(He) is particularly distressed at the local opt-out being removed from the bill. The (attorney general) is opposed to dispensaries in any form, but he at least believes local communities and local governments should have the option to opt out if they chose,” Saccone said.

Saying he “vehemently” opposed the Massey bill, Suthers asked lawmakers to scrap the proposal entirely when it was first unveiled more than a month ago.

“To embrace commercial dispensaries or clinics as a means of distributing marijuana would go far beyond the intent of the voters. In my opinion, it would constitute de facto legalization,” Suthers wrote the committee.

Pointing out that Colorado voters overwhelmingly defeated a 2006 bid to legalize recreational marijuana, Suthers added, “I strongly believe the voters should have a say if the state is going to go beyond the parameters of Amendment 20.”

Suthers’ position was amplified by other law enforcement officials when the House committee heard testimony on the bill.

“I don’t believe you have authority to regulate dispensaries,” Adams County District Attorney Don Quick told the committee at its earlier hearing. Noting that he supported Amendment 20, Quick said the burgeoning retail industry selling medical marijuana created in the last year isn’t what voters intended.

“The system worked for seven years, and now that the abuses come along, we’re saying we have to change the law to accommodate them,” Quick said. He urged lawmakers to “take it to the voters” rather than proceed on their own.

It’s an offer numerous medical marijuana advocacy groups might take him up on. Brian Vicente, executive director of Sensible Colorado, and medical marijuana attorney Robert Corry have both said they have ballot initiatives in the wings, ready to take before voters if the legislature gums things up.

The Judiciary committee sent the Massey bill forward to the House Appropriations Committee on a 7-4 party-line vote with all of the panel’s Republican members opposed.

A companion Senate bill that regulates the relationship between medical marijuana patients and their doctors won initial approval by both chambers last month and awaits action by the Senate on House amendments.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com