For years, Denver voters have been told to envision a green city. They've responded with overwhelming support. Just perhaps not the type of green some politicians may have hoped for. Now, as one state senator is said to be vying for the city's top post, the big question remains: has he doomed his candidacy by angering marijuana activists who once considered him a friend?
"Green Rush." That's how a recent CNN report explained the explosion in medical marijuana dispensaries popping up around Denver.
Other reports have proclaimed Denver as America's "Pot Capitol," highlighting the fact that the city is now home to more dispensaries than Starbucks or schools. To newcomers, it's all so very interesting and new.
In reality, however, the city's pro-marijuana vibe has been a staple for at least the last decade. Since 2000, Denver voters have consistently voted to support various incremental ballot measures all devoted to ending to the government's war against marijuana.
They've done so not once, not even twice or three times, but rather, four times. And in the aftermath of a major positive shift in federal anti-marijuana policy earlier this year, the city's landlords have welcomed nearly 300 medical marijuana dispensaries into their vacant strip malls and high end commercial spaces, with more than 200 additional shops set to open shortly.
The dispensary boom has meant that hundreds of thousands of dollars have been paid in rent, dozens of residents have gone from collecting unemployment to holding their heads high by collecting a legitimate paycheck, and most remarkably, the city's thousands of registered medical marijuana patients have been provided a marketplace of options providing safe, well-lit alternatives to the black market drug dealers they often previously turned to for their medicine.
But not everyone saw the "green rush" as a good thing.
A handful of affluent neighborhood coalitions turned to legislators to shut down dispensaries before they even opened their doors. In December, reporters gave copious coverage to a single failed robbery attempt of one dispensary located in the city's crime-prone west side. The 14 bank robberies hitting the city that same week got second billing.
Opponents found a good listener in Chris Romer, a Democrat representing Denver in the state Senate. The son of a former Colorado governor, Romer is also floating his name to run for mayor after current office holder John Hickenlooper announced this week that he'll seek to replace Gov. Bill Ritter, after Ritter shocked many with his own announcement that he won't seek re-election.
While the game of musical chairs is not one for wimps, it also involves basic rules of decency and voter trust: Don't alienate key constituencies, especially grassroots coalitions that have previously praised you in the media.
Coming from a political family, and having beat out a crowded primary field to land his current post, Romer should know the importance of ground troops well. So who could blame him in late 2009 when he jumped onto the medical marijuana media craze, announcing that he would introduce legislation designed to reasonably protect the interests of all involved? We even offered up our own ideas for workable regulations.
But then he introduced his bill.
The 60-plus page measure landed with a thud. Designed to create a complicated, contradictory maze of new regulations, the bill raised seemingly endless questions about constitutional violations and enforceability. Medical marijuana supporters were shocked and outraged. This was not the type of proposal they'd been promised. And they weren't alone in their disdain. A Denver Post editorial condemned it. Law enforcement officials lobbied behind the scenes against it.
But give credit where credit is due. Romer responded by slashing nearly half of the bill's length, introducing a 39-page version he marketed not only for its quicker read, but also as more workable for all involved. Still, this second draft failed to garner even mild support from a single key interest group on either side of the debate.
That's when things got a little emotional.
After a Friday afternoon closed-door meeting with Ritter and law enforcement officials, Romer chose Saturday night to announce that he would pull his bill. He did so not by picking up the phone to call key point people. Instead, he took to the Huffington Post on Saturday night just before 8 p.m., proclaiming not only that he would drop the bill, but also that he'd support an alternative seeking to shut down dispensaries altogether. He then blamed the development on irrational medical marijuana activists.
On Monday morning, we responded to the allegations, making our case on the Huffington Post that we have never wavered in our willingness to support a reasonable bill, and also highlighting weaknesses within the non-dead version. Just minutes after our response was posted, however, it became clear that Romer had no intent to compromise, evidenced by a flurry of media calls we received by reporters repeating fresh accusations made by Romer.
"Unsophisticated," "childish," "unwilling to compromise." The list went on and on. As Romer told it, he had no choice but to the kill the bill after medical marijuana activists refused to jump on board with provisions that could have destroyed patient access and confidentiality.
Romer's attacks are a slap in the face to our side's repeated, tireless, and public efforts to put forth recommendations for compromise. While both camps have become emotional at times (we are talking about constitutional rights here, so it's understandable) we have never wavered in our desire to work with Romer to develop a quality regulatory framework. Even in the midst of his most recent behavior, we maintain this commitment today.
Others may be more hesitant. At least for the time being, Romer has isolated a mobilized grassroots community that includes thousands of Denver voters who see his recent actions not just as political posturing, but also as a threat to rights they utilize to live their daily lives. While politicians in some Colorado cities may still be able to ignore, mock, or attack medical marijuana patients and caregivers, Romer cannot escape the viable threat of splitting primary votes with any pro-marijuana Democrat who should arise to challenge him.
Earlier this week, radical pro-marijuana activist Miguel Lopez, a Denver Democrat, announced he will challenge Hickenlooper for his party's gubernatorial nod. But what's to stop Lopez from jumping races in a few months, taking on Romer instead? Certainly if Lopez's goal is to get Democratic candidates to abide by the pro-marijuana intent of the city's voters, he could play a compelling role in a crowded primary field. While he's unlikely to win, he could play the role of a Naderesque spoiler to front runners, including Romer.
After a Monday Denver Post article, in which Romer repeated his thesis that he pulled the bill as a result of an unjustified stubbornness by opponents, activists responded with outrage, posting nearly 200 online responses to the story. "'A Friday afternoon meeting with the governor and law enforcement representatives.' Was this meeting publicized? Who from the public was invited? Doesn't this apparently private meeting violate the sunshine laws?" one asked. Another proclaimed, "Any and all who have ANYTHING to do with this type of legislation get voted OUT."
Romer appears unfazed. While on Monday, he called on activists "to wake up," two days later he began mocking the debate entirely, suggesting that the state's lawmakers needed to get high to better understand issues surrounding regulation.
Today, no one is laughing.
Among the nation's major cities, none has considered -- nor supported -- pro-marijuana ballot measures with more passion or frequency than Denver. Will this same passion translate into Romer's defeat in a likely heated primary contest for the Democratic mayoral nod this August? Results from the last four elections suggest that, at minimum, an anti-pot politician could be extremely vulnerable.
Still, at this point, all is not lost for either side. With the 2010 legislative session now underway, Romer has an opportunity to regain critical support from the medical marijuana community. We welcome him to put forth a reasonable bill that will pass constitutional muster and ensure that tens of thousands of patients don't lose their constitutionally-protected access to medical marijuana. If he can do this, we'll eagerly let history be history.
Senator Romer, come to the table. We'll be waiting, as will thousands of medical marijuana patients and caregivers who plan to vote in this year's elections.
Jessica and Robert J. Corry, Jr. are Denver attorneys whose patients include medical marijuana patients and caregivers. Mrs. Corry specializes in land use law, including municipal zoning, and Mr. Corry is the chairman of the Colorado Wellness Association, a trade organization representing medical marijuana caregivers.