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"Rocky Mountain High" Medical Marijuana in Danger

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Over the past year, medical marijuana has consumed Colorado's news headlines and political debates. But with an estimated 100,000 patients now legally authorized to use marijuana to treat debilitating medical conditions, a handful of lawmakers threaten to dismantle a transparent dispensary system in favor of constitutionally-suspect regulations that could embolden a now-distressed black market.

We remain cautiously optimistic that the cloud of Prohibition will continue to clear. Repeatedly, courts have sided with patients in litigation surrounding medical marijuana rights. Voters, too, continue to express support for an emerging medical marijuana marketplace where transactions occur in well-lit, safe, taxable, environments instead of darkened back alleys, as they did in the decades before Colorado voters first approved medical marijuana in 2000.

While opponents mock this thriving industry and impugn patients' motives, six in ten voters continue to support medical marijuana rights. Notably, pro-medical marijuana sentiment runs strong even in the most unanticipated of places. In nursing homes across Colorado, terminally-ill residents use marijuana as an alternative to the haze of highly addictive narcotics.

While the state's economy continues to flounder, legislators have spent hundreds of hours over the last four months formulating proposals that could dismantle the state's system of retail dispensaries. Sen. Chris Romer, a Denver Democrat also running for Mayor, proposes Senate Bill 109 and House Bill 1284. As he explained it recently, the legislation would establish an army of "auditors with guns" to meet his goal of putting "well over 50 percent" of Colorado's legal marijuana businesses "out of business."

The proposals come after Senator Romer previously posted on this site that his efforts to establish a complex regulatory structure for medical marijuana were "now over."

Even more concerning, a handful of our fellow Republicans have now signed onto a ballot measure that would prohibit caregivers from making any profit whatsoever. If approved by legislators, Senate Concurrent Resolution 5 could appear on this November's ballot. It would ask voters to amend the Colorado Constitution to exclude retail sale or commercial cultivation of medical marijuana from constitutional protections, while also establishing overly cumbersome entitlements governing caregiver-patient relationships.

Patients will face an uphill battle and must band together to counter the special interests and establishment voices that seem to disfavor dispensaries. While Colorado's largest newspaper, The Denver Post, has established an excellent medical marijuana advertising section that has pumped much needed revenue into its coffers, ColoradoCannabisCorner.com, it uses its editorial page to bash dispensaries. A recent editorial argued that "dispensaries are never even mentioned in the medical marijuana constitutional amendment." Another Post editorial called legal retail medical marijuana a "farce" and "hypocrisy."

This assertion despite the Colorado Constitution Article XVIII § 14(2)(d)'s specific reference to "acquisition, possession, manufacture, production, use, sale, distribution, dispensing, or transportation of marijuana." If "dispensing" marijuana is explicitly contemplated, then a dispensary must reasonably be considered legal.

Marijuana is the only legal industry in America that endures such brazen threats from elected and opinion elites. If a politician had said that he plans to put "well over 50 percent" of all, say, supermarkets, out of business, would he suffer from voters?

Colorado House Bill 1284 and Senate Bill 109 would realize Senator Romer's dream of putting "well over half" out of business with requirements that no other business sector need satisfy. For example, the current version of HB 1284 purports to allow local governments to ban the exercise of this constitutional right to the medical use of marijuana. This would subject constitutional rights to government approval, when the principal purpose of constitutional rights is to protect vulnerable or unpopular minorities against the majority. Popular things don't need constitutional protection; pitchfork-wielding mobs are not screeching to ban Mom and apple pie. Although medical marijuana remains popular statewide, there remain geographically-isolated pockets of irrational prejudice and NIMBY-ism relating to medical marijuana. Medical marijuana patients are the new despised minority; typical arguments recycle emotional Segregationist canards of "property values," "increased crime," and "we must protect the children," none of which have any empirical support.

HB 1284 requires the state to go, hat in hand, to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and request that the federal DEA "reschedule" marijuana from a Schedule I substance to a Schedule II substance. Lately here, the DEA's favorite pastime has been to laugh in Colorado's face when it comes to medical marijuana. However, in this instance, the DEA's inevitable laughter at Colorado's rescheduling request would be justified, since HB 1284 somehow ignores that it is the U.S. Congress, not the DEA, which sets the schedules for drugs. Before requesting the DEA to do something it cannot do, the Colorado Legislature should keep its own house in order, and reschedule marijuana away from Schedule I in its own State-level classification, Colorado Revised Statutes section 18-18-203.

HB 1284 requires that all officers, directors, stockholders, and employees be of "good moral character and reputation." What organization could comply with such a sweeping and vague requirement? Probably not even Focus on the Family, or the Colorado State Legislature for that matter. HB 1284 requires those in the medical marijuana business to repay all student loans and have no outstanding judgments due to any government agency, such as a parking ticket.

HB 1284 irrationally requires that retailers themselves cultivate no less than 70% of their supply offered to customers, and that no wholesalers can exist. If such a requirement applied to supermarkets, i.e., that the supermarket must grow 70% of the wheat for the bread on the shelves, and that every farmer growing the wheat must also be a retailer, it would put both farmer and supermarket out of business, stuck in an infinite loop of government "auditors with guns" tracking every last minutiae of the production chain.

HB 1284 also attempts to resurrect the notorious limit of five patients per caregiver, an unconstitutional limit which the Colorado Health Department illegally adopted and was enjoined by a court from enforcing. How can a caregiver function with any economies of scale if limited to five patients?

If these proposals become law and the government puts "well over half" of dispensaries out of business, would the production, sale, purchase, and use of marijuana end? Of course not. It would simply go back underground, back to unsafe darkened alleys, un-taxable, with no quality control.

And those who need it the most, the 75-year-old grandmother in a wheelchair, would suffer in the black market. Try as the government might to repeal the laws of supply and demand, marijuana will always be grown, sold, and consumed.

Let's hope legislators can understand even more basic economies of scale. With 100,000 voters now registered as patients and another couple million who believe strongly in medical marijuana rights, lawmakers should think twice before dismantling the dispensary industry.