New Pot Shops Halted Under Proposed Bill

Bill Requires New License, Background Checks For Medical Marijuana Centers

Paid doctors and smoking marijuana at dispensaries would both be prohibited as part of a new bill at the Capitol intended to regulate -- and tax -- medical marijuana shops like liquor stores.

The bill would also bar any new medical marijuana dispensaries from opening until July 2011, and would force existing establishments to meet new regulatory guidelines by that date in order to stay in business.

The Department of Revenue would be the licensing authority for the "centers", as lawmakers have termed the medical marijuana distribution locations.

"Once you’re a licensed provider -- same as a liquor store -- if you misbehave… boom! Your license is gone," said Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver.

The measure is expected to be formally introduced later in the week and assigned to the House Judiciary Committee. But after months of work, two lawmakers said they're trying to make the best of a situation they didn't foresee a year ago.

Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, said he had intended to write a bill law enforcement groups across the state could support. Wednesday he admitted some police and sheriff's groups don't like the bill as written.

"Law enforcement did not want to see the center model or clinic model or dispensary model really in any form or fashion. We've in fact, added that in because we're very sensitive to the access issue. So we're going to have it very tightly controlled," Massey said. "Nobody likes it, which makes us know we've done the right thing."

"It's just not consistent with what we were hoping for," said Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson. "I won't close the door to it (centers) but it's an area I think needs to be evaluated closer."

Robinson said he and other police groups are concerned about the "unintended consequences" and crime current medical marijuana dispensaries have brought to Colorado communities.

At the Patients Choice on South Broadway, some 4,000 patients use the facility where business has grown at least 20 percent per month during the first year of operation.

Staffers view the new bill with trepidation and are concerned jobs could be lost if smaller groups cannot meet the new regulations.

"It’s exciting because there’s no way to really know. But it’s definitely scary a little too….just from the jobs,” said Julia Andersen, a new public relations representative hired last month.

“We’re hoping a lot of them don’t pass because a lot of mom-and-pop dispensaries will be shut down," Andersen said adding it would become "almost the WalMart of dispensaries where it’s just one, big super store."

Local cities and municipalities could use zoning laws to accept or reject the new marijuana "center" model, state Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, said, acknowledging that further compromise is possible.

"We often make bills better, believe it or not, as we go through the process. I’m quite sure that this one will change," Romer said. "But we are still going to have the guard rails that if they misbehave, we’re going to pull their license, and I think that’ll do a lot to give this industry a lot of credibility and sustainability. But I think it’ll do a lot to rein in what I call the wild, wild west."

Owners and employees of the centers would also have to pass criminal background checks, Romer said, and register as non-profit groups under the state definition.

A spokesman for the Department of Revenue, Tim Webber, said that designation usually limits liability for such a group, limits distribution of income to that group or another non-profit organization, limits employee pay to a "reasonable amount" and requires the group's assets be dissolved or transferred to another non-profit if the first group is dissolved.

"The dispensaries that I’ve been to that I think are making great, quality care for chronically ill patients, I don’t see a lot of change with what they do today versus what they’re doing in the future. But I don’t think they’re going to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange anytime soon. I don’t think we want them on the New York Stock Exchange," Romer said. "I don't know if the Ganja Gourmet is going to make the cut anymore, based on the model we just came out with. My suspicion is there's a few models out there that aren't going to cut it."