THE BLOG

Colorado Fails to Regulate Marijuana -- and Colorado Springs Decides Not to Take Their Chances With Legalization At All

07/26/2013 06:18 pm ET
  • Kevin A. Sabet, Ph.D. President, Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and Asst. Professor, University of Florida

Though voters in Colorado and Washington officially legalized marijuana in November, most of us have known for a while that marijuana has enjoyed de facto legalization status in a few places for a long while now (you know who you are). One of those places is Colorado, where anyone with a little back pain and some cash can get a legal recommendation for pot shielding them from any legal sanction. But unlike in California, some Colorado officials have taken it upon themselves to try and regulate this trade, hoping for tax revenue and some control over the very strange and wild world of medical marijuana.

Their hopes have been dashed.

Two reports published within days of each other last week are enough to be a real buzz-kill for anyone high on legalizing marijuana in Colorado. Both reports, which closely examined the medical marijuana regulation business in Colorado, reveal that Colorado has failed their citizens by, well, not regulating marijuana at all. It serves as a troublesome warning for officials earnestly trying to implement a law filled with loopholes and special interest (read: marijuana industry) concessions.

And to add insult to injury, major cities like Colorado Springs - Colorado's second largest city - have decided to ban recreational marijuana stores altogether (thanks to 5 city officials who resisted heavy lobbying by marijuana interest groups). And there's good reason to think they just saved themselves from a big headache.

In the first of two major audits released last week, the Colorado State Auditor concluded the following about the Department of Public Health's oversight:

• "Public Health does not sufficiently oversee physicians who make medical marijuana recommendations. We found evidence suggesting that some physicians may be making inappropriate recommendations."
• 12 physicians made recommendations for 50% of the 108,000 patients; with one physician making a whopping 8,400 recommendations.
• "Some physicians have recommended what appear to be higher than-reasonable amounts of medical marijuana. In one case, a physician recommended 501 plants for a patient." 501 plants is enough pot for an entire city, let alone one patient.
• "Public Health has not established a process for caregivers to indicate the significant responsibilities they are assuming for managing the well-being of their patients or for documenting exceptional circumstances that require a caregiver to take on more than five patients."
• "It is not clear whether Public Health was adhering to the Colorado Constitution when it allowed staff of contract firms and other state agencies to access the confidential Registry. "
• "Legal restrictions on Registry access create barriers for law enforcement agencies to effectively and efficiently enforce the State's medical marijuana laws. "
• "The Medical Marijuana Cash Fund has been out of compliance."

The second audit reviewed the city of Denver's medical marijuana licensing practices by the Department of Excise and Licenses. In many ways it was even more damming than the previous report, concluding that the city of Denver "does not have a basic control framework in place for effective governance of the... medical marijuana program." The auditors wrote how the medical marijuana records are "incomplete, inaccurate, inaccessible," and that many medical marijuana businesses are operating without valid licenses. Moreover, the Department does not even know how many medical marijuana businesses are operating in Denver. In addition, the audit reported that the Department's personnel lacked formal policies and procedures to govern the licensure process. Finally, the auditors concluded that the medical marijuana licensure fee was established arbitrarily and the Department does not know the extent to which the marijuana license fees cover the costs of administering the program.

Taken together, these reports show that the state gets an F for "regulating" marijuana as medicine in Colorado. And it is not just the auditors who are worried. Treatment centers in Colorado are reporting more and more problems with marijuana, and emergency room admissions for the drug are skyrocketing among kids. The journal JAMA Pediatrics reported that unintentional marijuana poisonings among kids have risen significantly since marijuana as medicine has been available. Other peer-reviewed papers are finding that medical marijuana is easily diverted to youth. The Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2012 surveyed 164 Denver-area teens in treatment, and 121 of them -- or nearly 74 percent -- said they had used someone else's medical marijuana. The average number of times they had done so? 50 times. Researchers also found that after adjusting for gender and race/ethnicity, teenage patients who used medical marijuana had more symptoms of marijuana dependence and conduct disorders than those who did not use medical marijuana.

Additionally, according to the Department of Health, only 3% of users in Colorado reported cancer, and less than 1% reported HIV/AIDS as their reason for marijuana. The vast majority (94%) reported "severe pain." New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg best summed up marijuana as medicine when he said that it is "one of the greatest hoaxes of all time."

Add this to other law enforcement reports showing that more than 70 instances of the diversion of medical marijuana to criminal drug operations, and the picture is not good.

And a new, nationally representative survey released on July 16 confirms that parents who support legalization of marijuana expect strict regulation of the substance's availability. While 40 percent of adults say they are in favor of legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes, a majority of them oppose any form of legal marijuana for use among kids and teens. Almost everyone surveyed expects no advertising or commercialization of the drug in a legal environment. Legalization advocates in Colorado, who stand to make millions off of this new industry, insist on sweeping aside any concerns by saying "we'll learn from the past and do it better." But, given the vast influence of Big Marijuana involved in the current process to draft marijuana regulations -- we shouldn't count on it.