EAGLE - Marijuana - it's sort of legal and sort of not.
Colorado, along with 13 other states and the District of Columbia, has ruled it is OK for use as a medicine. The federal government still says pot is flat-out illegal.
One of the most problematic effects of medical marijuana is that the laws surrounding it are all over the place, which makes it a difficult issue for law enforcement and various levels of government.
"This twilight zone is ridiculous ... it needs to go one way or the other," said SGT. Jim Gerhardt after a medical marijuana forum in Avon on Oct. 20. Gerhardt is a member of the Colorado Drug Investigators Association. "I think you're going to see a moving target as legislation progresses," he said. "It's a bureaucratic mess."
Eagle County Sheriff Joe Hoy agreed.
"Absolutely, it's harder to enforce. (The law) is so poorly worded you could drive a truck through the loopholes," Hoy said.
One man at the forum cited a lack of political leadership as part of the problem.
"We have no leadership on this," said Walter Dandy. "We need a politician who isn't afraid."
Hoy agreed with that as well.
"Until lawmakers tighten up and give us some real direction, our hands are tied," he said.
During the forum Gerhardt also concurred.
"We (CDIA) wanted to have a ballot initiative to put in the hands of the people as to whether we want to expand (Amendment 20) but (politicians) wouldn't touch it," he said.
Inside the 'twilight zone'
Gerhardt said one of the reasons medical marijuana legislation has become so messy is that Amendment 20 doesn't address the industry aspect of the drug, only its use as a medicine.
"For the first seven years after Amendment 20 passed (in 2000), we had no problems," Gerhardt said. "We were pleasantly surprised. In the last few years, however, this industry seemed to pop up overnight and there weren't any laws regulating it."
The term "industry" refers to marijuana grow operations and dispensaries, which also sell the drug in the form of food. What has happened, according to Gerhardt, is that the Colorado Department of Health tries to regulate the medicinal aspects of pot and the Colorado Department of Revenue tries to handle the industry.
The explosion of the state's medical marijuana industry roughly followed a fast increase in the number of card-holders - patients registered with the state as medicinal users. A patient must get a doctor recommendation and final approval by the state to become a card-holder. Gerhardt said "some rogue, profit-minded physicians signed thousands of recommendations" while the average doc rarely signed any. Gerhardt estimated about 15 physicians were accountable for a vast number of marijuana card recommendations.
"For those of you who are patients, your world got encroached upon by recreational users," Gerhardt said.
Where things get really tricky for law enforcement is that each patient is allowed to grow six plants for personal use, or to designate a "care giver" as his or her supplier. Further, the potency and production of each cannabis plant varies drastically.
At the forum, Gerhardt presented a photo of a grow operation found in Denver. It showed a greenhouse packed with plants that towered over people's heads. Gerhardt asked the audience - full of experienced growers - how many plants were in the photo. Guesses ranged from 80 up to 300. Gerhardt said even police thought there might be that many but the caregiver was actually growing a legal amount of 32 plants for patients.
"If one plant can produce so much more than what is intended to be allowed, how can we know how much marijuana is going to patients - how do we know the extra production isn't going to the black market?" Gerhardt said. "The only answer would be for the state to produce and dispense it but it can't because the feds say it's illegal."
Dandy said he doesn't use pot and doesn't advocate for it but he believes it's a waste of money and resources to keep it illegal or try to regulate it in its current state.
"We've got to learn a lesson from Prohibition," he said. "I'm not pro-drug, I'm just against trying to deal with it in this silly way."
Losing a job
"My personal opinion is that I we've reached a point in society where (marijuana) should be legalized," said Eagle's mayor, Ed Woodland. "However, like alcohol, there would still be consequences. You could still lose your job - some employers don't want you using regardless if it is legal."
Angela Shy, 39, became a cardholder in December 2009. She uses pot for back pain and insomnia.
"It helps me sleep and pills don't work for me," she said.
Shy worked as a greeter at the Eagle County Regional Airport until she was fired July 28 after failing a random drug test. Then she was denied unemployment on the basis that she was using the drug.
"The state gave me my card so I could use pot and then the state denied my unemployment. That doesn't make sense," she said.
After two months of appealing for unemployment benefits, Shy recently prevailed. However, her victory had more to do with a loophole that she never actually signed anything for her employer acknowledging that she would be subjected to random drug tests.
"I was a good employee," She said. "Was I smoking before work? No. I was a good employee, yet my former employer didn't bother to follow up and recommend me for unemployment benefits. (The airport) told me to contact its payroll company about it and a woman there said, 'We never followed through because the state is going to deny you anyway.' All the company had to do was answer a letter and say it wasn't going to dispute my unemployment and leave the decision to the state but (the company) didn't even bother."
Upon winning her case for unemployment, Shy said both the company representative and the unemployment office told her it would have been better for her to lie about why she was fired.
"The system seems very broken," Shy said. "Marijuana is still illegal when compared to alcohol or pharmaceutical drugs."
She said there is some hypocrisy that pharmaceutical drugs are socially accepted while pot is demonized.
"You can overdose on aspirin - not to mention prescription pills like Vicodin and Valium, which are also truly addictive - but not pot," Shy said.
Since losing her job, Shy has appeared at Eagle Town Board meetings.
"Speaking at one of the meetings was the first time I outed myself (as a marijuana user)," she said. "There are a lot of people in positions where they can't be open because this carries a stigma. But they can openly drink themselves into oblivion," Shy said.
Sweet Leaf Pioneer owner Dave Manzanares has come before Eagle Town Board several times as he started and expanded his medical marijuana dispensary in Eagle. He estimated for each person who came to meetings in support of his business, there were four others who didn't feel comfortable showing their support in public.
"I could have easily doubled the number of people who showed up, but they were afraid of being pre-judged by employers and the community," Manzanares said.
Manzanares is a home-grown local of Eagle County. He grew up in Minturn and graduated from Battle Mountain High School. He started and ran a cleaning company in the area with his brother for about 10 years until the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"9/11 affected most of our jobs, we lost about everything," he said. "I've gone through four or five jobs since then."
Before his cleaning business dwindled, though, Manzanares was cleaning the county airport terminal and county justice center.
"We were cleaning at the end of the day with hardly anyone around - the county basically trusted me with lock-up for 10 years," he said.
Manzanares noted some small differences in the way people treated him when he opened Sweet Leaf.
"I had to go to the jail to have my fingerprints taken as part of the paperwork to open a dispensary," he said. "I ran into a deputy who I'd known since I was a kid. He was happy to see me and asked about my family and then I told him why I was there. He stiffened up for about 10 minutes and kind of looked at me differently, like I was suddenly the enemy. He relaxed after a little while, but police have been trained for years that pot is illegal and they associate it with criminals."
"But my parents brought me up to abide by the law, and now the laws have changed," said Manzanares.
Even after her participation in public meetings, Shy was still fearful of being quoted in a newspaper article and almost decided to retract her comments.
"My husband is worried about what people think," she said. "The people coming out in favor are putting themselves in a more uncomfortable position than the few who come out against it. ... For me, this is a pivotal moment and I hope I can inspire someone else to take a stand."
"Unless the public pushes, the laws don't change," Manzanares said.
Steve Richards, 60, is a former member of Eagle Town Board. He served at the time the board voted to allow dispensaries as a special use in town. That was October 2009 and Richards has become a medical marijuana cardholder since then, after going to Denver to learn more about the issue. Richards remembered last fall, the town board was fairly divided and Mayor Ed Woodland didn't want to vote at the time.
"In retrospect, I should've cast a vote but I didn't feel then that I had enough information," Woodland said. "I think that's the thing with a lot of leaders - they face that issue of not knowing."
Eagle County Commissioner Sara Fisher attended the Oct. 20 forum in Avon.
"I'll probably be a little reluctant to answer questions about (medical marijuana) until after Nov. 2," she said at the forum. She later discussed what it's like to face such an issue as an elected official in the final days of her re-election campaign.
"It's an unusual time," she said. "I never imagined I would weigh in on something like this. We are charged with finding a resolution and there's a lot of work to be done."
"It's not something I'm fearful of tackling," said Fisher. "The challenge has been a kind of change in the federal attitude. ... The change will need to occur at the federal level."
So, is there very much perceptible leadership in the top political ranks regarding marijuana?
"There is no leadership on this issue at the state and national levels," Woodland said. "None."
Meanwhile, the citizens of Eagle County continued to give medical marijuana a thumbs-up in the Nov. 2 election.
According to Eagle County's unofficial counts Wednesday morning, ballot measure 1B passed, with 7,877 votes in favor of allowing medical pot operations in unincorporated areas of the county. Six thousand, three hundred and four votes were tallied against the measure.
Minturn residents also voted to allow dispensaries.
Woodland sees dispensaries as any other contributing local business.
"In the case of the Sweet Leaf Pioneer, (Manzanares) is a contributing member of the business community in that he is employing people," Woodland said.
Prohibition ammunition: Marijuana advocates often cite failed 1920s era laws
When debating the medical marijuana issue, people often refer to the nation's failed experience with Prohibition.
In 1920, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the sale, manufacturing and transport of alcohol in the United States. Congress approved the National Prohibition Act over President Woodrow Wilson's veto on Oct. 28, 1919. It established the legal definition of intoxicating liquor, as well as penalties for producing it. Though the Volstead Act, as the legislation was popularly known, prohibited the sale of alcohol, the federal government did little to enforce the law. According to a Wikipedia entry citing the National Archives as its source, by 1925 in New York City alone, there were anywhere from 30,000 speakeasy clubs.
Prohibition successfully reduced the amount of liquor consumed in the United States, but it also is credited with stimulating criminal activity by unintentionally encouraging illegal bootlegging operations. Prohibition became increasingly unpopular during the Great Depression, especially in large cities.
On Dec. 5, 1933, the ratification of the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment.
The Dec. 27, 1933 edition of The Eagle Valley Enterprise included a syndicated column called "Washington Digest" by William Bruckart, which outlined the provisions of the new law and predicted regulation of liquor sales would ultimately be a local problem.
"As to the local option problem, Washington observers are able only to guess that there will be many heated fights in numerous communities throughout the country. People always have fought over the prohibition question since it has been an issue, and they will argue about it now in many areas that otherwise are noted for their peaceful atmospheres where people are used to talking politics in smaller doses," he wrote.
But it didn't take long after the ratification of the 21st Amendment for a local entrepreneur to take advantage of the new law. By Jan. 5, 1934, S.S. Lemon advertised the opening of The Gypsum Liquor Store. His business announcement proclaimed "Buy liquor legally. We are complying with the law in every respect and it is up to the consumer to help put the bootlegger out of business by purchasing only legal liquor, guaranteed by the federal and state governments."
Lemon's stock included bonded and cut whiskies, old wines, gins and brandies. His business slogan was "It is smart to be legal."
- Pam Boyd