Effort to extend moratorium on MMJ dispensaries stripped from bill

DENVER • When the Colorado Legislature passed a bill in 2010 to establish regulations for the medical marijuana industry, it was the first of its kind.

This year, a bill in the Legislature aims to clarify specifics of the laws, which last year left many medical marijuana dispensaries asking whether they’re in compliance with regulations.

But one of the major provisions in the bill, which would have extended a one-year moratorium on state-issued dispensary licenses to July 1, 2012, was stripped out on Monday by Senate Democrats.

The intent of the moratorium was to allow local governments time to establish rules and adapt to the industry. It also would have given the state more time to clarify its own rules.

“The industry just needs to level out,” said Matt Cook, senior director of enforcement at the state Department of Revenue.

Democrats on the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee saw things differently. Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, said removing the moratorium is “basically a fairness issue,” to allow new entrepreneurs to open dispensaries.

The bill also was amended to allow some ex-convicts with felony drug records to work at dispensaries. If a person broke a felony drug law in the past, and the category of the infraction has  been downgraded, then those ex-cons may be eligible to work at dispensaries.

“There are people with drug felonies from when having a half-ounce of pot was a felony. Today it’s a petty offense.
“So we’re backing away from some of those restrictions, because we want people to have jobs in this state,” said bill sponsor Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver.

The bill has been overshadowed by a letter recently sent to Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, from U.S. Attorney John Walsh, that confirmed that Colorado’s medical marijuana laws are in violation of federal law. The letter was sent in response to a formal request for an opinion.

It stated that, though medical marijuana is legal under state law, the federal government has the authority to arrest anyone for growing and distributing marijuana.

Colorado’s Deputy Attorney General Michael Dougherty, head of the Criminal Justice Section, told the committee as much, and said afterward that the U.S. attorney’s letter should not be taken lightly.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office has better things to do than bluff,” Dougherty said. “If they’re taking the time to involve themselves in this, it sends a clear message to the Legislature and the people of Colorado that breaking federal law will not be tolerated.”

He warned that if the federal government wants to, it could raid dispensaries and imprison shop owners.

“If you get into this business, I think you always have to realize there’s always a risk that the DEA or some other federal agency is going to kick down your door and raid you and haul you off to federal prison,” Steadman said.