Growing Pains: Spotlight lands on Colorado, the medical marijuana leader
October 7, 2010
More in Part 3
Growing Pains Part 1
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Growing Pains Part 2
Six cannabinoids have been designated as the most significant in plants used for medication.
The most psychoactive cannabinoid, THC has the ability to alter behavior, mood perception and consciousness. THC causes the euphoric feeling.
This somewhat psychoactive cannabinoid occurs when THC is exposed to light or heat. CBN causes drowsiness and reduces spasms.
CBL relieves pain and inflammation and is a promising antibiotic.
Studies have shown CBD to relieve inflammation, anxiety, nausea, high blood pressure and pain.
THCV is psychoactive, may treat diabetes and is being studied as an obesity medication.
Studies have shown CBG to counteract and prevent tumor growth.
Source: Full Spectrum Laboratories
Steamboat Springs — The room erupted in applause after Kush Magazine Publisher Michael Lerner told a packed audience of more than 300 center owners, infused-product makers and growers at the Medical Marijuana Business Alliance's August networking meeting that "Colorado is so far ahead of the rest of the country in this industry, there is no second."
It was a common reaction to the speakers throughout the night at Casselman's Bar & Venue in downtown Denver. They whistled, whooped and hollered when Matt Cook, a career law enforcement officer charged with overseeing the state's medical marijuana industry, said, "It truly is a privilege to grow with this industry as we moved forward."
It seemed like the group felt it was part of something big. The industry had come so far, and there was still room for growth.
"For me, the energy is crackling," said Brett Magdovitz, who is part of a group that owns three Front Range medical marijuana centers and several product lines. "This is history in the making."
A few days later, at Cannabis Festiva at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Lerner drove home his point.
"I feel Colorado — being the leader — is basically paving the way for the rest of the world," said Lerner, publisher of the Calabasas, Calif.-based Kush Magazine, which has local editions in 34 cities in 14 states. "I think the capital for medical marijuana is right here."
An estimated 113,000 Coloradans have been approved to use medical marijuana, which became legal after state voters passed Amendment 20 in 2000.
Now medical marijuana centers number more than 800, a majority of which are in the Front Range cities of Denver, Colorado Springs and Boulder. The industry has taken root across the state and quickly spread to mountain towns such as Steamboat Springs, where three medical marijuana centers serve a population of about 12,000.
Perhaps more profound is the societal impact of medical marijuana's sudden rise. With marijuana-related advertisements bombarding residents young and old in newspapers, on TV and on storefronts across the state, it quickly is becoming a part of Colorado culture. But the industry's future still is hazy.
"I think it is becoming more a part of the community all over Colorado," Steamboat Springs City Council President Cari Hermacinski said in August. "The big concern going forward for me: The state has passed new rules. I don't know whether that simplifies matters or complicates them for Steamboat."
Legitimizing a culture
Marijuana long has been a part of Steamboat Springs culture, City Council member Jon Quinn said.
"I think particularly in Steamboat, there's always been this accepted underground culture in which marijuana has been accepted for decades," he said. "If you visit other communities, that might be different."
There was little opposition among city leadership to allowing medical marijuana centers in Steamboat. The City Council allowed two such businesses to open in August 2009 before imposing a moratorium that gave the city time to craft an ordinance to formally regulate the industry. That ordinance was approved in January.
Some City Council members are reconsidering whether capping the number of medical marijuana centers at three — two for-profit businesses and one cooperative — created a monopoly instead of a competitive marketplace for business owners and customers.
Kenny Reisman was the only member of the City Council who voted against the ordinance in January, citing his preference for no cap and a higher license fee. In August, Reisman said a higher license fee would have required a larger commitment from center owners.
"We as a government were trying to balance a lot of different entities: patients, businesses, the police department," he said. "I almost felt more was better if it came with a higher price tag."
The passage of House Bill 1284 and Senate Bill 109 — legislation created to regulate the business and medical sides, respectively, of the state's medical marijuana industry — will require the city to amend its medical marijuana ordinance.
"I would be surprised if the new ordinance restricts the number to three," Quinn said. "We may restrict to some number, but I have a feeling that number will be more than three."
Hermacinski agreed that Steamboat's new ordinance, which City Attorney Tony Lettunich plans to propose to the council this fall, could allow more medical marijuana centers. Whatever that number might be, budding entrepreneurs still will have to wait. House Bill 1284, passed by the General Assembly this spring, imposed a moratorium preventing new medical marijuana businesses from opening before July 1, 2011.
Some Steamboat medical marijuana center owners disagree that the City Council's ordinance stifled competition.
"It's not a monopoly," said Kevin Fisher, co-owner of Rocky Mountain Remedies. "There's a monopoly if it's one. There's three."
Like Steamboat, other communities are grappling with amending existing medical marijuana ordinances. Some will leave it to voters to decide whether to allow marijuana businesses in their communities. And some, including Hayden, already have banned medical marijuana businesses.
That ban was made possible by the passage of House Bill 1284. The provision is one of several that medical marijuana advocates say they will lobby to change in the upcoming legislative session.
"It's our belief patients have the right to access marijuana in a convenient manner in their communities," said Brian Vicente, executive director of patient advocacy group Sensible Colorado. "They shouldn't have to get on the bus to go out of the city or county to get the medicine that their doctor says they need."
There also could be a challenge of Gov. Bill Ritter's proposal to use $9 million in revenue generated by the state's Medical Marijuana Registry cash fund to help balance Colorado's budget.
The state's constitution and Colorado Revised Statutes state that revenue generated from fees paid by medical marijuana patients to obtain a registry card can be used only to administer the program and can't be appropriated to any other state fund. The transfer would require General Assembly approval.
Denver medical marijuana attorney Rob Corry also said he was gearing up to challenge House Bill 1284.
"There are a lot of horrible unconstitutional restrictions on caregivers," he told the group at the Medical Marijuana Business Alliance's meeting in August.
Corry said he would challenge the provision in the legislation that restricted caregivers, or medical marijuana providers, to five patients. Caregivers were allowed to have more than five patients after a successful challenge to the restriction in 2007. That challenge was upheld by the state Board of Health in July 2009, but House Bill 1284 reinstated the five-patient limit.
Rep. Tom Massey, the Poncha Springs Republican who helped draft House Bill 1284 and Senate Bill 109, said in August that he expected the state's medical marijuana legislation to require tweaks in upcoming legislative sessions. But he added that other states were starting to take notice of what Colorado has done.
Others will follow
The legislation is part of the reason Lerner called Colorado the country's medical marijuana leader. As he noted, the world is watching.
Matt Cook, senior director of enforcement for the Colorado Department of Revenue, told the same Medical Marijuana Business Alliance group that "I'll even go so far as to say we're in the international spotlight," citing a recent media request from the BBC.
He's also been contacted by states that have or are considering medical marijuana legislation. He said in an August e-mail that officials in South Dakota, Vermont, Arizona, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., have contacted him to ask about Colorado's medical marijuana regulatory system.
At the meeting, Cook highlighted the nation's capital, which in May approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes. The program there hasn't started.
"Does anybody really know the significance of what happens in the District of Columbia?" Cook asked the group. "If you're not (aware), their laws had to be ratified by the Congress of the United States, and they were passed."
House Bill 1284 gave Cook the authority to draft rules to further regulate Colorado's medical marijuana industry. He released 92 pages of draft rules after the first meeting of a workgroup Aug. 27.
The rules, which the group of medical marijuana stakeholders will continue to refine at subsequent meetings, will be presented during a hearing of the state's licensing authority in January, Cook said. During the ensuing six months, he said his enforcement officers would work closely with members of the state's medical marijuana industry.
"There's three components: education, compliance and enforcement," Cook said. "That will not change. We will ensure the industry understands the expectations for them."
Some of those rules could include a radio frequency identification system to track medical marijuana sales. The tracking system is intended to prevent the sale of medical marijuana on the black market. It's one of several proposed regulations that would help the state keep track of medical marijuana from seed to sale.
In addition to extensive security regulations, medical marijuana center owners, infused-product makers and growers will be subject to rules that require safe cultivation of marijuana and related products.
And that's where people like Michael Lee come in.
A green science
Lee owns Cannabis Therapeutics, which he says is the state's oldest surviving medical marijuana center. He said the business opened in 2004. Lee also owns Genovations Creations, a lab he opened in 2006 to study the science of marijuana. Lee said he has invested $800,000 in it.
In the Colorado Springs lab, Chief Science Officer John Kopta isolates cannabinoids, the compounds that have medicinal properties, to create a cannabinoid profile. Those profiles indicate how much of each cannabinoid is present in a particular strain of medical marijuana or other product.
"Ultimately, I think it's all for the patients, for them to know what's in their medications instead of sticking their nose in a jar," Kopta said. "Just because it looks pretty and smells pretty, it doesn't mean what they're getting will help. We'll get to a point where we'll know a patient's ailment and be able to recommend the different strain or liquid or product that works best."
Kopta said he knows what different cannabinoids treat based on European research. Clinical trials of marijuana aren't permitted in the U.S. because it's categorized as a Schedule 1 controlled substance by the federal government and isn't considered to have medicinal value.
Eventually, he said Genovations Creations would be able to breed plants with certain cannabinoids to treat specific medical conditions.
"My research is not going to stop. … It's where (the industry) is going to be. It's where the future is," Lee said, but modified his thought. "It's now, today. It's not tomorrow."
Lee said there are only three other labs in the state conducting research similar to that of Genovations Creations. One of those, Full Spectrum Laboratories in Denver, lists Mary's in Oak Creek as a medical marijuana center it tests for.
Genovations Creations also offers that service for a fee, but Kopta said there's been a mixed reaction from medical marijuana center owners. He said it comes down to whether people want to help patients or make money.
In addition to creating cannabinoid profiles, Lee said the research can detect whether a marijuana sample has mold or other contaminants. He also uses his lab to create some of the 84 medical products he sells at Cannabis Therapeutics.
"I would like to see testing of medical marijuana in every state," he said, "so they know it's medicine and it helps people."
Kopta said research like his will continue to move the industry toward legitimacy.
"Everyone is recognizing that this could be the next Zoloft or next Viagra," Kopta said. "Once it's taken off that Schedule 1 ranking, it will be available to the pharmaceutical companies. It will be sold in Walmart."
Matt Brown, of the industry business advocate Coloradans for Medical Marijuana Regulation, said he thinks it will be years before pharmaceutical companies come on board and are able to conduct clinical trials.
"I always tell people when this changes federally, I think the biggest threat is a company like Whole Foods," he said. "Their product chain is most like ours. They understand how to take a product from a small organic farm."
Legitimacy to legalization
As Colorado's medical marijuana industry becomes more legitimate, so too could measures to make marijuana legal for all users.
Vicente said the state has its eyes on California, whose voters will consider a ballot initiative next month to make it legal for anyone 21 or older to possess as much as an ounce of pot.
State officials in California have estimated that approval of the proposition could generate $1.4 billion in sales tax revenue statewide.
But Vicente said what happens in California won't dramatically affect future initiatives in Colorado.
"I think they're distinct entities, different states," Vicente said. "I think if it would pass and was successful, I think it could create a model for other states and Colorado. If it fails, I think it could inspire people to work harder on this issue."
Proponents of a similar initiative already are raising money to place a legalization measure on Colorado's 2012 ballot.
The Legalize 2012 Project, which is led by medical marijuana advocacy group the Cannabis Therapy Institute, has proposed a legalization model that wouldn't limit pot possession or use. The model also wouldn't subject marijuana to taxes beyond regular sales tax.
Vicente said in August that Sensible Colorado has begun fundraising and reaching out to local and national leaders for a 2012 legalization push of its own. He said the organization is starting to line up resources and endorsements and plans to have a website up and running by December.
Law enforcement reaction
As a young patrol officer for the Aspen Police Department in 1967, Routt County Sheriff Gary Wall and another officer made the town's first marijuana possession arrest. At the time, Wall thought pot would be legal within 10 years. Now more than 40 years later, he still thinks legalization is inevitable.
"I'm not advocating people use marijuana," he said. "It's prolific in this town among all people in all age groups and professions. I can't pretend to be this law enforcement guy who's going to lock everyone up using marijuana. No. Nobody feels different about it than I do. It's heading that way."
Instead of pursuing criminal charges for petty marijuana offenses, Wall said he's taken an active role in the Routt County drug court, which works toward alternatives to incarceration for people with addiction problems. He said it's been successful for people who buy into the program.
Wall also said the Sheriff's Office has not seen an increase in crime since medical marijuana centers began operating here. He said his office hasn't used additional resources, whether in dollars or time, to increase monitoring or make more marijuana-related arrests.
"I don't have any hard and fast rules about this," Wall said. "I don't have any policies. My people, I expect them to use their judgment and discretion when they come across these things and do what's reasonable. I'm not one to take a zero-tolerance approach for relatively minor things. Obviously, serious crimes are a different situation."
In addition to concerns about the potential for increased crime, local law enforcement officials have expressed concern that the presence of medical marijuana centers makes access to the drug easier for youths.
"From our perspective, our primary concern — more than a concern about people getting medical marijuana cards that don't need them — is it will end up in the hands of kids," Steamboat Springs Police Chief JD Hays said.
Asked whether he thinks that has happened, Hays said, "So far, no."
Hays, like Wall, said his office hasn't dedicated additional resources to marijuana enforcement since the first centers opened in Steamboat. He said there hasn't been any crime associated with the centers and they all passed compliance checks in May.
Front Range law enforcement agencies also are reporting no clear link between the presence of medical marijuana centers and higher crime rates.
A Sept. 14 story in the Colorado Springs Gazette reported "no evidence the industry — which boasts about 175 businesses in Colorado Springs — disproportionately attracts robberies and break-ins."
During an 18-month period ending Aug. 31, the Gazette reported there were 41 criminal incidents at medical marijuana centers and grow operations: 33 burglaries, six robberies (burglaries with a threat of violence) and two cases of vandalism.
By comparison, the Gazette reported that there were 797 robberies of businesses and homes during an 18-month period ending June 30, the most recent statistics. The story stated that there were 4,825 burglaries of businesses and homes during the same period.
The Gazette cited a Colorado Springs Police Department spokesman who said the numbers don't indicate that a higher crime rate exists with medical marijuana centers but more time is needed to collect information about the industry.
The Denver Police Department came to a similar conclusion that no clear link existed between medical marijuana and increased crime in the city.
Values remain the same
Some Steamboat elected officials said the presence of medical marijuana centers hasn't changed the community.
"I don't think it has, in my mind," Reisman said. "I think the core values of our community are many, many years in the making. Having (medical marijuana centers) does not change those core values in six months or the core character in six months."
Council President Hermacinski said she's heard positive comments about the businesses.
"When I compare it to other issues we've dealt with, I wouldn't say it's a particularly difficult one," she said. "In terms of public input, it's dog parks and Frisbee golf that fills the room. With medical marijuana, it was only the guys who wanted licenses. … I'm not saying it's not an important issue. But about how it's resonating in the community, the only ones who show up are the licensed (center) owners."
There are now three medical marijuana centers in Steamboat and five in Routt County, and more may be on the way, depending on how the city amends its ordinance.
It doesn't appear that the state's medical marijuana industry is slowing down either, even though some officials, law enforcement officers and medical professionals question the treatment and the potential for abuse within the industry.
And despite the statewide moratorium that will prevent new medical marijuana businesses from opening until July 1, 2011, the industry is expected to grow to an estimated 150,000 patients by year-end, Rep. Massey said.
The same type of growth can be expected in Steamboat, with new patients motivating centers such as Rocky Mountain Remedies to continue expanding.
Quinn said the fact Steamboat's medical marijuana centers have drawn little attention speaks to the owners doing what the city asked.
"Overall, I guess I would say we don't have giant marijuana leaves on Main Street," he said. "They've operated under the radar. They've toed the line with the requirements from the city and Police Department. I guess I would say, so far, so good."
What you missed
Part 1 It took nine years for Colorado's medical marijuana industry to take off after Amendment 20. Some worry it's now out of control.
Part 2 Medical marijuana has become the basis for lucrative businesses, and entrepreneurs are not the only ones who could cash in.