Senate committee hashes out medical marijuana bill

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

A Colorado Senate committee grudgingly approved a bill to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries after more than eight hours of testimony that stretched nearly until midnight Tuesday. Noting that only a few witnesses supported the bill out of more than 100 who testified, lawmakers said House Bill 1284 needs some serious repair before it would win their final support.

State Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, center, talks to witnesses and reporters in the hall outside the Old Supreme Court Chambers at the State Capitol on Tuesday before a Senate committee heard testimony on a bill sponsored by Romer to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“This is the sausage-making, this is the process” said Senate Local Government and Energy Committee Chairwoman Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, as the hearing neared its conclusion and lawmakers prepared to vote. Earlier, Schwartz threatened several times to shut down the hearing when medical marijuana advocates became belligerent on the witness stand, including one man who said he hoped the politicians would “choke” if they passed the bill.

Tempers are running high as the General Assembly nears its final weeks in session without finished legislation to set rules for Colorado’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry. Legislators had hoped to tackle the question early in the session before moving on to the state’s budget crisis, but the chief authors of pending medical marijuana bills, Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, and Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, have found no agreement between competing interests — chiefly law enforcement and medical marijuana patients and caregivers — determined not to budge. And lurking behind all the activity are a handful of advocates determined to take the question to voters if lawmakers disappoint them.

Volunteers outside the Old Supreme Court Chambers stock a table full of sustenance for witnesses set to testify Tuesday at the State Capitol on a bill to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

While some are steadfast in their opposition to HB 1284 — most law enforcement officials say regulating medical marijuana dispensaries contradicts the constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2000 that created the right for seriously ill patients to access the drug, and some patients and advocates believe any restrictions likewise will end up in court — nearly everyone was thrown for a loop when Romer unveiled substantial changes to the bill the House passed last week.

Romer’s proposals include the ability for local governments to ban dispensaries outright, a requirement the retail outlets grow 70 percent of their own product, a tighter set of restrictions on who can obtain a dispensary license, and fees in the tens of thousands of dollars to legally sell medical marijuana. Another proposal would forbid patients under age 21 from dispensaries.

If the bill’s going to get past Gov. Bill Ritter’s veto pen, it has to include “non-negotiables” worked out with the governor’s office, Romer said. “There are guard rails.”

Ritter, a former district attorney, appears to be more willing to accept highly regulated dispensaries than other law enforcement officials, including Attorney General John Suthers and a phalanx of prosecutors, police and sheriffs, who say voters should have a say before dispensaries get state approval. Nearly unanimously, law enforcement representatives said the current situation was driving up crime and exposing youth to an easily accessible illegal drug.

“Milk money has been replaced with drug money,” said Adams County sheriff’s deputy Jon Van Zandt.

A sign posted on a door to the Old Supreme Court Chambers at the State Capitol on Tuesday warns witnesses and spectators that “No pins, hats, badges or stickers allowed in the chamber.”
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“This is not a political issue,” Jefferson County District Attorney Scott Storey told the committee, “it’s a public safety issue. Legalizing dispensaries is tantamount to legalizing distribution of marijuana.” He went on to urge lawmakers to “dump this bill” and instead refer a measure on dispensaries to voters.

As unappetizing as this brand of legislative sausage may be, it’s not a set of questions lawmakers can put off, Romer said. Civic groups believe “the bill has to pass,” he said, “or the governor will have to call a special session.”

Laura Kriho of the Cannabis Therapy Institute urged lawmakers instead to create a commission to set rules, but after the committee passed the bill, she lamented the development “This is a sad day for patients,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Not only have they been sold out by their lawmakers, but they have been sold out by well-funded dispensaries, and they have been sold out by so-called patient rights groups. This bill will destroy patients’ access to their medicine, drive prices up, and force patients back into the black market.”

With so much discontent and disagreement, some lawmakers said the bill wasn’t yet near the finish line but agreed to push it forward.

“I have many problems with this bill,” said Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, minutes before the panel voted unanimously to wave the bill on to the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I have a whole list of unintended consequences.”

The lack of support for the bill “speaks extremely loudly,” she said. “I don’t want to derail tonight, but if these (problems) aren’t fixed, I’d rather have a bill that’s silent on some of these things and allow the rules process to work these things out with some of the stakeholders, than to have it too proscriptive (and) wrong.”

Sen. Ken Kester, R- Las Animas, agreed with Newell, at least in broad terms. “There’s a lot of things that need to happen to this bill before I feel comfortable with it,” he said, adding he’d vote it out of committee but that was the last vote sponsors could count on. “I hope you don’t bring another bill back to this committee while I’m on the committee,” he told Romer with a smile.

“We don’t write too many bills in uncharted territory,” Romer said as the committee prepared to adjourn. Because Colorado is one of the first states to tackle such explosive growth in the medical marijuana field, Romer reminded fellow lawmakers the state didn’t have other laws as guides. “We do need to work harder because there are people who will follow us,” he said.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com