Legitimizing Legalization - Marijuana Week


By Lisa Han

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When it comes to cannabis, success doesn’t always smell so sweet.

Last Wednesday, Doug Schepman, the communications director for the Colorado Senate Democrats, told Denver’s 7News that he noticed a strong marijuana smell inside the Colorado Capitol. “It wasn’t like a car just passing by and catching a whiff,” said Schepman. “It was bad.”

Schepman is not alone in his observations. Christine, a University of Colorado undergraduate, confirms the state’s recent rise in odor problems: “There were legitimate complaints in the newspaper that the town of Boulder reeked of weed,” she said.

Colorado is a state whose reputation is increasingly becoming synonymous with marijuana. Since passing Amendment 64, which legalized small amounts of recreational cannabis, residents, dispensary owners, and lawmakers have been redefining their relationship with the marijuana industry.

“It’s pretty much become our signature,” said Christine. “I’ve asked students from out of state why they chose to come to Colorado, and almost every single one of them has said it’s because of the marijuana culture and quality.”

According to Christine, the standard price of an ounce before dispensaries were widespread was approximately $300. By 2009, that number dropped to $200, and since then it has dropped to $150 an ounce. The competition amongst dispensaries and downward price pressure has essentially put black market dealers out of business. These cheap prices have drawn in visitors from all over the world looking to take advantage of the state’s unique laws.

In the 2012 election, voters in Colorado sent a clear message about their embrace of marijuana culture when Amendment 64 passed with 60,000 more votes than were cast for President Obama over Mitt Romney. However, the days when Denver saw more medical marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks are long gone. After legalization, responsible regulation of the new industry has become a one of the state’s foremost priorities.

In order to create a regulatory framework for Amendment 64, Governor John Hickenlooper convened a 24-member marijuana task force to make recommendations to lawmakers.

Alec Garnett, the Executive Director of the Colorado Democratic Party explains, “What the task force is hearing is from all these different interests that are worried about being impacted by the legalization of marijuana. The task force is trying to strike the right balance—we don’t want to impede so much on the private sector, so this is a way to bring the business community to the table to talk through a lot of other issues that are out there.”

One of the most important and most contested recommendations by the committee is a DUI bill, which would implement a five nanogram THC blood-level limit for drivers. This week marks the fourth legislative session where the bill will be discussed.

“The last three failed primarily because there has not been a conclusive test to determine the level where everyone agrees this is too high to drive. There doesn’t seem to be a cost-effective tool to use to help law enforcement figure out what the level is,” said Garnett.

While most agree that a DUI stipulation regarding cannabis is important, the lack of understanding over what “under the influence” means has led to considerable criticism of the proposed limit.

Medical marijuana industry veteran Truman Bradley has strong doubts about the bill: “I would be in favor of some clinical studies—testing on motor facilities, muscle response, that kind of thing…I would not be in favor of what’s happened in Washington, where essentially any cannabis user can be arrested at any time for ‘being under the influence.’ That’s essentially a go-to-jail card that’s in the hands of law enforcement.” Bradley believes that Washington’s current policy opens up the possibility of unfair profiling on the part of police officers.

The DUI bill, however, only scratches the surface of the difficult questions that legislators will need to resolve this year. Recreational shops will start opening in 2014, and the state will have to figure rules about licensing, zoning, and permits. Garnett explains that legislators have begun treating marijuana as “a zoning issue and a land issue more than a criminal issue… how far away from schools can they be? How many do you want in your city? What type of advertisement are they going to have?” In addition, the task force will need to consider the treatment of existing medical marijuana dispensaries.

Bradley, a business school graduate and part owner in two medical marijuana companies, has a high stake in how the committees act. Having been in the industry since 2009, he knows better than anyone that newcomers have to bring more than just a love for weed to the table. Many people who were attracted to medical marijuana without business knowledge found that the industry was not as lucrative as they believed.

Now, Bradley has to worry about whether or not the medical marijuana industry will be able to sustain itself at all: “Medical marijuana will become a shell of what it was…companies will have to transition to recreational or else they won’t survive. That’s the belief.”

Furthermore, it is possible that the transition from medical to recreational could be mired in paperwork. With the new rules, permits, and stipulations, dispensaries may not be able to afford the switch.

The task force will also need to discuss issues that have affected medical marijuana prior to legalization. While the federal government does not recognize legalization, it has not attempted to dismantle individual dispensaries. The bigger problem is medical marijuana’s relationship to banks, which have acted lawfully by nationwide standards.

“What the marijuana industry is really struggling with and where there is crime is the fact that they have nowhere to put their money, because there isn’t a sophisticated, secure banking system for medicinal marijuana,” explains Garnett. This has resulted in hoards of cash being kept in the shops themselves, opening up dispensaries to the risk of burglaries.

While there is much debate about the new regulations that will be used to implement Amendment 64, Coloradans seem to agree that the marijuana movement itself is unstoppable. “As far as recreational goes, this is the way of the future, and I think that it’s obvious,” says Bradley. “Younger people don’t see the harm, they don’t see the danger and they don’t see this reefer mentality.”

Garnett believes that Colorado’s move to legalize marijuana will soon be emulated on a national level: “What we see here is that medicinal marijuana has worked in terms of generating tax revenue for municipalities, especially with the economic downturn… There’s a lot of evidence that it hasn’t been this evil awful empire that people fear.”

With many residents and public figures still ambivalent about the state’s new notoriety, the marijuana supporters will need to use their politically savvy in order to reign in skeptics. In April, legalization will face another major test when the Denver City Council votes on whether or not to opt out of allowing recreational marijuana sales, following the example of other conservative counties on the eastern plains and on the western slope.

Given Denver’s influence, such a move could cripple the state’s legalization movement and send a nationwide message to others who are looking to Colorado to set an example. The city must come up with a plan for regulations by May 8 in order to meet the deadline to implement the bill on July 1.

“I think really anyone with a brain can see where cannabis is going long term,” said Bradley. “The question is what does the end of prohibition look like?”