DENVER - State lawmakers are close to cracking down on shady doctors who are writing medical marijuana recommendations but, with just about two weeks to go, they're still trying to figure out how - and whether - to regulate dispensaries.
A proposal to license dispensaries, require owners to undergo criminal background checks and to grow most of the marijuana they sell (House Bill 1284) is set to get its first hearing in the Senate on Tuesday. Sponsor Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, thinks about 80 percent of the estimated 1,000 dispensaries in the state wouldn't be able to pass muster and would have to close. He believes about 200 dispensaries would be enough to provide medical marijuana to the estimated 100,000 people entitled to use the drug legally.
"My intention is to get the thugs and the knuckleheads out of the business," said Romer, who wants to set the license application fees at between $10,000 and $35,000 depending on the size of the dispensary.
He also plans to make more changes to the regulations including barring those under 21 from entering dispensaries and prevent people from out-of-state moving to Colorado to open a dispensary. The current slate of regulations has already approved by the House so any more amendments made in the Senate would have to go back to the House for another vote.
Meanwhile, a group of Republican lawmakers wants to ask voters to just ban dispensaries altogether. Their proposed referendum would require that only actual people - not shops - be able to provide medical marijuana to patients and that those caregivers also help patients with the daily necessities of life. They need to get support from two-thirds of lawmakers to get it on the ballot.
Prosecutors and Attorney General John Suthers have been urging lawmakers not to regulate dispensaries because they say that will legitimize an industry that they say wasn't sanctioned under the medical marijuana law passed by voters in 2000. Backers of Amendment 20 point out that the law does reference dispensing of the drug.
Lawmakers are close to passing a less controversial measure (Senate Bill 109) that bars doctors from writing medical marijuana recommendations if their medical license isn't active or has been restricted by regulators of if they've lost their federal certification to prescribe drugs.
Ned Calonge, the state's chief medical officer, said about 15 doctors have written about 80 percent of the medical marijuana licenses and seven of them have restricted licenses. The medical marijuana registry is confidential and he says that has kept him from referring any cases to the medical examiners' board for investigation. He said the bill will make it clear that he can ask the board to investigate and allow him to turn over records with patient information redacted.
Many dispensaries want lawmakers to pass regulations for their shops, both to legitimize their industry and protect them from possible federal drug raids. However, smaller operators fear the current proposal that they grow 70 percent of their pot themselves will drive them out of business. Lawmakers say the limit will make it easier to track sales to ensure that they're legal.
In the middle are patients, whom advocates say are being forgotten in the rush to get a handle of dispensaries.
The proposed regulations would allow cities to ban dispensaries within their boundaries. City councils or voters could approve such a ban. Anyone who has been convicted of a drug felony would be barred from running a dispensary.