Patience urged with growing medical marijuana industry

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Gazing across the bustling convention floor last Saturday afternoon, Matt Brown pointed out the variety of businesses that occupied exhibit booths: security systems, psychedelic artists, attorneys, glass-pipe blowers, publications, clothing purveyors, grow-light manufacturers, a company that helps produce compost using worms — and, yes, medical marijuana dispensaries galore.

Denver City Councilman Chris Nevitt, right, gazes into the audience during a legislative town hall. Also featured is Andy Schultheiss, former Boulder City Council member and current district director for U.S. Rep. Polis, D-Boulder.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“A year ago,” said the executive director of Coloradans for Medical Marijuana Regulation, “I don’t think any of these people would have believed something like this would exist.”

Indeed, as streams of conventioneers — mostly young men, but including a smattering of aficionados from every generation, what looked like every persuasion — entered the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver, nearly every face broke into a childlike smile. And every smile displayed wonderment, tinged at least slightly with disbelief.

“Look at everything that’s here,” Brown said, even though he could only see a fraction of the vendors from his organization’s own booth near the entrance. “It’s an entire industry.”

Billed as the country’s largest indoor medical marijuana expo, the two-day Colorado Cannabis Convention drew about half the crowd organizers initially predicted — perhaps 50,000 people paying $15 a pop to check out what the industry has on offer, listen to music, maybe collect coupons from dispensaries and get a free chair massage — but the attendance still rivaled the largest events the convention center has hosted.

State Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, left, asks constituents to be patient while lawmakers sort out medical marijuana issues. He appears on a panel with state Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Sponsored by KUSH Magazine and DailyBuds.com, the convention featured more than 300 exhibitors, along with musical acts and members of the stoner hip-hop superstar group Cypress Hill signing autographs.

Earlier that afternoon, Brown emceed a panel of local, state and federal politicians who told a sympathetic crowd to bear with a political process that was taking its time sorting out marijuana questions.

“The number of members of Congress who are willing to say, like Jared Polis says, that marijuana should just be legalized flat-out is growing,” said Andy Schultheiss, district director for U.S. Rep. Polis, D-Boulder, who cancelled his own scheduled appearance on the panel at the last minute.

“Ten years ago, you would not have found more than two or three members of Congress willing to say that,” Schultheiss continued. “Now the chairman of the Banking and Finance Committee” — Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank — “is pro-legalization. Every election, it’s more and more, both Democrats and Republicans. Social change takes time, but we are in the middle of it now, and it will happen.”

A vendor displays Dope on a Rope Soap products, shaped like marijuana leaves.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Others on the panel agreed the growing pains experienced by Colorado’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry — initiated by voters a decade ago with the approval of Amendment 20 — could be viewed as speed bumps on the road to full legalization of the drug.

“I completely support legalization,” said state Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, echoing remarks made earlier by a fellow panelist, Denver City Councilman Chris Nevitt.

“I don’t think that the government should question why you’re using (marijuana), and whether your use is spiritual, or medicinal, or recreational — who cares?” Steadman said. “It’s none of the government’s business.” The audience erupted in cheers and then quieted down as Steadman returned the conversation to firmer ground.

“That said,” cautioned Steadman, who is among a bipartisan group of state lawmakers steering marijuana regulation bills through the Legislature this session, “we are starting to make some progress in Colorado, at least taking some steps in the right direction.”

Among the proposals before lawmakers is a bill sponsored by state Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, to restrict the doctor-patient relationship that underlies a state registry allowing medical marijuana use. That bill is headed to a conference committee where Romer has said he intends to require younger applicants to get the approval of substance abuse counselors before the state OKs patient status.

A young man wearing a marijuana-leaf headdress visits with exhibitors showing off their wares at the Colorado Cannabis Convention.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Another bill, sponsored by state Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, sets out regulations for dispensaries — renamed “clinics” — along the lines of the state’s liquor code. Steadman is sponsoring a third bill to reform drug possession laws by raising the amount of marijuana required to charge a felony.

But state and local officials can only do so much while the federal government continues to classify marijuana among the most dangerous and restricted drugs, panelists agreed. It only gets more complicated because each level of government has its own set of contradictory rules concerning the drug.

“In Denver, our regulations prohibit onsite consumption” at medical marijuana dispensaries, Nevitt said. “But the unintended consequence is throwing these folks who live in public housing in jeopardy. ... If you can’t consume it on site, you can’t consume it in public, and you’re not allowed to consume it at home because of your Section 8 (federal housing) vouchers, where the hell are you gonna consume it?”

Nevitt urged the audience to remain patient while the wheels of government turn.

“We’ll discover a whole host of wrinkles in the law we’re going to have to iron out,” he said.

Steadman drew cheers describing the complexly related “intermediate steps” the law would have to take as medical marijuana goes mainstream.

“This year, creating this regulatory scheme,” Steadman said, “and allowing this industry to come out of the closet, if you will, to step into the light, to thrive, to show the contribution that you’re making to our economy, those are all necessary first steps.

“Dealing with Section 8 housing or driving or employment law issues or family law issues, there are so many tentacles that come with this issue,” Steadman said, “eventually the laws are going to have to bend or change to accommodate to this use. Those are things that are going to happen piecemeal and in baby steps and many of those are a few years down the road.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com