Medical marijuana: Active patient numbers rise even as many people leave registry
The number of active patients on the Colorado medical marijuana registry rose from May to June, finishing just shy of 100,000 patients. But new data released by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment this week shows that while the number of active patients continues to grow, more people are still dropping off the registry than joining it.
Between June and November 2011, the number of active patients on the Colorado medical marijuana registry declined by more than 48,000 patients, to a total of 80,558; it was the first decline since the registry began to expand in 2009.
CDPHE officials say a drop in the cost of patient registry fees, which went into effect in 2012, may have been partly to blame. The theory: Patients were waiting until then to reapply in order to save money. The CDPHE also denied about 500 patients last winter, preventing them from re-applying for their medical marijuana registry cards for six months. And activists have pointed to the increased regulation of medical marijuana centers as being a deterrent for privacy-minded patients.
The numbers began to climb again in December, however, and have been doing so ever since. But that doesn't mean the exodus from the registry has stopped.
At end of May, the CDPHE had processed 180,925 new patient applications. That number rose by 3,077, to 184,002 patients, by the end of June. But the increase in new patients only brought the total number of Coloradans with active red cards up by about 1,050 people, to 99,960 at the end of June -- indicating that a large number of patients dropped off the registry and are not renewing their cards or were booted off by the CDPHE for rules violations. As we noted in July, this trend has held steady since November 2011. February was the only exception: 1,619 new patients were added to the registry, but it still grew by 4,522 people.
This month, the CDPHE made a few minor changes this month to the way statistics are reported. Most notably, the figure for the number of patients designating a primary caregiver has been amended to include medical marijuana centers.
The department doesn't break those figures down any further, but CDPHE spokesman Mark Salley explained the June 2012 figures to Westword in July. According to him, roughly 43.6 percent of patients designate a dispensary to grow for them, while only 9.6 percent name someone else as a private caregiver. The majority of patients shop at dispensaries (and don't sign any up as their primary center), buy from caregivers/dealers not on the registry or grow their own.
Other statistics given out by the CDPHE for June remained the same as they have for more than a year: Women make up just under a third of all patients, the average age for all cardholders is 42, and well over half of all patients live in the metro area.
Medical marijuana community up in arms over Roach comments
By Scot Kersgaard coloradoindependant.com
Declaring that marijuana has no known medical value, The DEA’s new regional chief Barbra Roach has also let it be known that she would find a place to live that does not allow medical marijuana businesses. It is not surprising that in Colorado, where voters have approved medical marijuana, some find her comments to be more than a little offensive.
“By federal law, marijuana is illegal,” she told the Denver Post. “There is no medical proof it has any benefit.”
Roach told the Post that marijuana is illegal despite state law that legalizes it for medical use. She has not returned a call seeking further comment.
It is well documented by now that Colorado U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a longtime proponent of drug reform took immediate and impassioned exception to Roach’s comments.
From Polis’s Facebook page:
She concludes that her goal is to “focus on dismantling the “top echelon” of drug organizations.” And “to strive for the large drug trafficking organizations – not just domestically, but internationally.”
On this, I wish her well. Ironically, Colorado’s legalized and regulated marijuana industry has probably done more damage to large drug trafficking organizations than her work will ever accomplish, but I certainly wish her well in her efforts unless she starts raiding legal Colorado businesses who are abiding by our laws.
Polis is not the only person in Colorado a little miffed that the Drug Enforcement Administration would promote someone to run the DEA’s operation in Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and Utah who is openly hostile to medical marijuana.
“Kudos to Rep. Polis for highlighting and responding to DEA Agent Roach’s silly comments about marijuana and derision of communities throughout Colorado,” said Mason Tvert, one of the leaders of efforts to legalize marijuana in Colorado. “Polling shows a majority of Colorado voters believe it is time to end marijuana prohibition, and this November they will have the opportunity to do just that. As a recent transplant to Colorado, I hope Agent Roach will respect our state’s ongoing discussion about the benefits of regulating marijuana like alcohol and refrain from using her government job to interfere with the debate.”
“Medical marijuana has saved my son’s life,”Shan Moore told The Colorado Independent. Moore’s son, Chaz Moore, also known as Bill Smith, has a rare neurological disorder that causes upper body spasms. The teenager missed about a year of school, much of it spent in hospitals, before the family reluctantly agreed with a physician recommendation that they try medical marijuana, which they credit with reducing the frequency, duration and intensity of the attacks.“Medical marijuana saved Cash Hyde’s life. It saves people’s lives. Period,” said Moore. “I challenge Roach and (U.S. Attorney) John Walsh to a debate on the medical value of marijuana,” he said.
Cash Hyde is a young Montana boy whose parents have given him cannabis oil to fight a brain tumor and to help combat the effects of chemotherapy. They credit the cannabis with keeping Cash alive. While the tumor returned after our original story was published, family friends told the Independent Cash’s cancer is again in remission, a fact confirmed by the “>Hyde family website. We did not talk to the family for this story.
As noted in the above video, few medical doctors are willing to talk about treating kids as young as Cash Hyde with cannabis. Here, we interview Hyde’s doctor, who says he has no doubt about the treatment.
“I’d like to ask them why they are trying to kill my kid,” Moore said. He said he worries that if medical marijuana dispensaries are shut down, he or Chaz–who turns 18 soon–will have to buy marijuana from street dealers.
“I worry about that. I know what I was like at 18, and I worry what will happen if dealers try to sell him meth or ecstasy along with the marijuana he needs. I worry about what else might be in the marijuana,” Moore said.
He said he also worries about the legal prescription drugs that Chaz used to take to control his seizures, many of which were so debilitating that Moore had to be hospitalized while on the drugs.“Every 19 minutes someone dies from a prescription drug overdose. Why are they trying to put my son in harm’s way?” he asks. In fact, prescription drug overdoes are a rising cause of death in the U.S. and around the world, but finding an exact number of how many people are killed each year is difficult.
“They (Walsh and Roach) say they are trying to save children, but that is what I’m trying to do. When they shut down dispensaries, they send families like our to the Mexican cartels, where you don’t know what the product will be laced with. It scares the hell out of me. I don’t want to have to go to drug dealers for the medicine my family needs. Dispensaries don’t push meth or cocaine on my kid, but the drug dealers will,” Moore declared.
“This is just part of the DEA’s new approach,” said Jim Gingery, executive director of the Montana Medical Growers Association. “Are these people serious? I’m concerned that we have anyone in public office who is not up on the current research.”
The Colorado Independent reported earlier this year that the DEA was investigating Montana Legislator Diane Sands in connection with a drug trafficking case. Sands surmises the investigation is because of her support of the state’s medical marijuana laws.
“Nothing will change until President Obama says so,” said a spokesperson for Colorado’s Legalize2012 campaign, which is seeking to make marijuana completely legal in Colorado and is not to be confused with the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol initiative. “This doesn’t bode well for Colorado. Of course marijuana has medical value–there is 10,000 years of history with marijuana as medicine.”
Even the National Cancer Institute has acknowledged the value of cannabis in treating cancer. The NCI has since removed this information from its website.
Here, local attorney Kristy Martinez talks about her battle with cancer–and the role cannabis played in her fight for survival.
Health: Marijuana and students
Two youths walk through Acacia Park Monday, Jan. 9, 2012 in Colorado Springs near Palmer High School. Students interviewed in the park said they believe smoking marijuana is not harmful and actually beneficial in several ways. New research shows adolescence is a crucial time for brain development and marijuana use can permanently change the teen brain. Also, young people who start using marijuana before age 18 are much more likely than adults to become addicted to the drug, research shows. (JOE MAHONEY/THE I-NEWS NETWORK)
By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Health Policy Solutions
He’s 16 but his baby face makes him look a little older than 10, his age when he first tried marijuana.
“I smoke marijuana every single day all day long,” the teen said during a lunch period spent hanging out at Acacia Park outside his downtown Colorado Springs high school.
“It develops brain cells. That is a complete and true fact,” he said. “It kills weak brain cells. It does affect your lungs … but it’s better than smoking cigarettes.”
Dozens of students interviewed across Colorado as part of an investigation by Education News Colorado, Solutions and the I-News Network made similar statements:
IN HIS OWN WORDS:Audio of a 16-year-old’s views on marijuana.
Marijuana is healthy. It helps me focus in class. And, hey, it’s better than alcohol or cigarettes.
“It’s less damaging to smoke weed,” said a 15-year-old girl getting high over lunch near her Denver high school. “I’m not trying to mess with my body.”
The investigation found a 45 percent increase in drug violations reported by schools statewide in the past four years, even as violations in nearly every other category – including alcohol and tobacco use – declined.
School officials and health care workers repeatedly cited the location of medical marijuana dispensaries near schools and the saturation of marijuana in surrounding communities.
They say Colorado’s thriving cannabis industry and its advertising —online and on storefronts at more than 700 dispensaries — have emboldened young people to justify abuse and claim health benefits from marijuana.
But contrary to perceptions among students, doctors say marijuana is especially harmful to kids for two key reasons:
First, new research shows adolescence is a crucial time for brain development and marijuana use can permanently change the teen brain. Second, young people who start using marijuana before age 18 are much more likely than adults to become addicted to the drug.
“It’s an ironic play of events that use is going up at the same time that the science is coming out about its possible brain toxicity,” said Dr. Chris Thurstone, an adolescent psychiatrist who runs a substance abuse treatment program at Denver Health.
“We need to tell people that youth are the most likely to become addicted to marijuana and that when they become addicted, they are at higher risk for every bad outcome a teenager can face.”
Doctors interviewed across the spectrum, from vocal marijuana opponents to those who recommend it for patients, agreed that marijuana can be addictive. And the diagnostic bible for health providers, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, lists cannabis abuse and cannabis dependence as possible diagnoses.
“There is no debate in the scientific community,” Thurstone said.
“It’s physically and mentally addictive.”
Dr. Christian Thurstone, left, an adolescent psychiatrist, gives instruction to a patient, who requested not to be identified, about a prescription at Denver Health's STEP Program office on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012 in Denver. Thurstone warns that new research shows that marijuana has a greater toxic effect on a youth's brain at a time when data suggests a rise of use among teens and young adults. (JOE MAHONEY/THE I-NEWS NETWORK)
Research grim for young cannabis users
Few teens heed such warnings, however. While adolescents have always been impulsive thrill seekers, Thurstone and other researchers have found that all the most dangerous behaviors escalate when teens use marijuana.
It’s no different than when they use alcohol or other drugs.
The more often teens use and the greater the dose, the more reckless their behavior becomes. So regular marijuana use puts them at greater risk for dropping out of school, engaging in risky sex behaviors and getting in accidents, the leading cause of death for adolescents.
Research paints a grim picture for marijuana users who start at a young age:
- Teens using marijuana before age 18 are two to four times more likely to develop psychosis as young adults compared to those who do not.
- The teen brain is much more vulnerable to addiction. One in 6 kids who try marijuana before age 18 will either abuse it or become addicted to it compared with 1 in 25 adults.
- Studies show that heavy doses of THC, the key chemical in marijuana, during adolescence change the way the brain develops. In particular, marijuana’s harmful effects strike the hippocampus, which is critical for learning and memory.
“We know that adolescents who start using marijuana between the ages of 14 and 22 – and stop by 22 – have many more cognitive deficits at age 27 compared to non-using peers,” said Dr. Paula Riggs, director of the Division of Substance Dependence in the psychiatry department at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
“It affects brain processing, decision-making, impulsivity and memory,”
Riggs said there’s little question among doctors that marijuana can be beneficial for a small percentage of patients who have cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma or nausea from HIV treatment.
But that doesn’t mean it’s safe or healthy for kids.
“There’s no medical indication for medical marijuana in young people at all,” she said. “It’s not a medication. There are 400 other chemicals and many carcinogens in smoked marijuana.”
The revolution in brain science has only increased concerns about harm to the teen brain.
Experts used to think that the brain was fully formed by about age 6.
But new brain scan research has found that nerve cells don’t finish developing until young people reach their mid-20s. Teen brain cells don’t have as much of a fatty coating called myelin which helps messages travel from neuron to neuron efficiently. The brain also sheds unnecessary connections during adolescence.
It turns out that one of the last parts of the brain to fully mature is the prefrontal cortex, which governs complex decision-making and analysis.
“In other words, the adolescent brain craves pleasure, but it doesn’t know how to weigh risks, determine and plan for consequences or say ‘enough is enough,’” said Thurstone, who is conducting a five-year study on medical marijuana in Colorado for the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Debating a rise in marijuana use among teens
Blaming marijuana for increasing risky teen behavior is a leap, said Dan Rees, an economics professor at the University of Colorado Denver.
“It turns out that kids who use marijuana also drink alcohol and get in car accidents and have sex without condoms. It’s impossible to distinguish the effect of the marijuana and the effect of personalities,” said Rees, who has been studying the impacts of marijuana legalization throughout the United States.
He’s not surprised if young people are now getting medical marijuana rather than street weed. But he’s not convinced that overall use is up among kids or that marijuana is any more dangerous than other drugs that kids abuse.
A student from Palmer High School, who declined to be identified, during his lunch break at Acacia Park near Palmer in Colorado Springs on Monday, Jan. 9, 2012 said he uses marijuana regularly Behind him is the Indispensary, one of 23 medical marijuana dispensaries located within 1,000 feet of a school and last month were ordered to close by the U.S. Attorney for Colorado. (JOE MAHONEY/I-NEWS NETWORK)
Several studies show that alcohol use declines when marijuana use increases. One of Rees’ studies found that traffic fatalities went down by nine percent in 13 states, including Colorado, that have legalized medical marijuana. The researchers don’t know why. It’s possible that people drive more when they’re drunk than stoned.
The study used data through 2009, just as dispensaries began spreading across Colorado. So it’s unclear how the boom in dispensaries has affected marijuana use or driving here.
Another study by Rees shows that, in states that have legalized medical marijuana, use increases dramatically among young adults. But that did not hold true for those under 18.
Rees described the finding as “puzzling.” The study, which is not yet published, also used data through 2009.
“My strong suspicion is that there’s diversion from the legal market to the illegal market. The fact that kids are ending up with marijuana that was originally intended for the legal market doesn’t surprise me,” he said.
“There’s just no evidence that medical marijuana affected the percent of youth who said they smoked marijuana in the last month.”
Surveys in Colorado and nationally, however, appear to indicate marijuana use is rising.
In Colorado, a survey of more than 27,000 students through the Adams County Youth Initiative found a jump in use. In 2008, 19 percent of students in various Adams County middle and high schools said they had used marijuana in the last month. That number increased to 22 percent in 2009 and 30 percent in 2010.
And the Monitoring the Future study, the largest national survey of students and drug use, found in 2011 that marijuana use has risen for the fourth straight year after consistent declines in the past decade. The study also found one in 15 high school seniors now uses marijuana daily. That marked a 30-year peak for daily use, a finding that sparked great concern for Riggs.
“People will say, ‘I smoked in the ‘60s and I didn’t become addicted,’” she said. But, “Adolescents who are daily users are at much higher risk for becoming dependent. And the marijuana, by and large, is more potent today.”
State-by-state data for marijuana use should be available for the first time in the next couple of years. Riggs said that information will be critical because, unlike Rees, she suspects access to marijuana in the 16 states that have legalized it may be driving the increased use found in national survey results.
Here in Colorado, teens that Riggs sees through her clinical trials often repeat claims such as marijuana helps them “focus.” When she probes further, she finds their grades are going down.
“What they mean is ‘I’m totally lost. I can tolerate sitting there lost (in class),’” Riggs said. “It’s zoning them out.”
“They often come in and say, ‘It’s not addictive. It’s natural. It’s an herb.’ But you wouldn’t go out and pick poisonous mushrooms, would you?”
Recreational pot for teens ‘absolutely’ not healthy
Dr. Alan Shackelford recommends marijuana to some of his patients and advises lawmakers around the country on medical marijuana legislation. He maintains a business and website, Amarimed of Colorado, devoted to medical marijuana.
In very rare cases, Shackelford said he has recommended marijuana for children, including a toddler who was dying of a brain tumor.
“Her oncologist at Children’s was in complete agreement. We know that cannabis makes opiates much more effective. Judicious cannabis use allowed the parents to decrease the amounts of morphine and also got rid of horrific pain,” Shackelford said.
Recommending marijuana to some patients, however, and endorsing recreational use among kids is not the same thing.
“Do I think kids ought to say that it’s healthy and use it recreationally? Absolutely, I do not,” Shackelford said.
But he believes a narrow focus on marijuana abuse among kids distracts from the more harmful effects of other drugs they’re using, including tobacco, alcohol and prescription medications.
“Cannabis is much safer than those things,” Shackelford said. “I’m not demonizing alcohol or opiate prescription medications. Used correctly, alcohol can be no more lethal than Percocet. But both have the potential to kill people.”
Shackelford says marijuana is a valuable tool for some patients. He has found it particularly helpful for patients with migraines and elderly patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
He never recommends that patients smoke it and declines to say how many recommendations he gives per year for medical marijuana or what percentage of his patients seek it.
And he has a message for young people who claim marijuana is healthy.
“Don’t kid yourselves. Don’t use terms to rationalize something when we don’t know what the consequences are,” he said.
“It’s certainly not healthy like eating an apple and probably not healthy in teenagers, not in someone who is still developing.”
The same applies to abuse of Ritalin, Percocet, alcohol or methamphetamine, all of which Shackelford views as much more dangerous.
While debate is fierce over the relative harm of various drugs, Thurstone said the No. 1 drug his patients are abusing is marijuana. He has treated patients as young as 11 for its use.
Nationally, in substance abuse treatment programs, two-thirds of patients are dealing with marijuana abuse or dependence. At Thurstone’s Denver Health program, the figure is 95 percent.
“Many lives are being destroyed by this,” Thurstone said. “(Teens) are dropping out of life. They’re dropping out of school or if they’re not, they’re doing really badly.
“They’ve dropped away from their family, their friends and their sports to smoke marijuana every day, all day. We see that all the time.”
Marijuana for rare disease blocks teen from school
By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Health Policy Solutions
COLORADO SPRINGS – An attack seizes Chaz Moore’s body, stealing much of his breath. Spasms in his throat, lungs and diaphragm cause the 17-year-old to speak in hiccups, one syllable at a time.
He says it feels like a grown man is jumping on his chest as the muscles in his belly roll like waves.
Medical marijuana banned on school grounds
Don’t expect to see students – or teachers or other staff members –legally smoking or consuming marijuana on school grounds, even if they possess medical marijuana cards.
The Colorado Association of School Boards certainly won’t be drawing up sample model policies to permit sanctioned use of the drug on campuses, said Brad Stauffer, associate executive director. In fact, Colorado school districts have begun to adopt policies that specifically spell out the opposite.
“We feel the laws in place clearly support what our policies say, that is, that the use of medical marijuana is prohibited in schools,” Stauffer said. He cited the Colorado Medical Marijuana Code, adopted by the legislature in 2010, which clearly prohibits the use or possession of marijuana in a school or on a school bus.
In addition, the constitutional amendment passed by Colorado voters in 2000 legalizing medical marijuana stated employers do not have to accommodate the use of medical marijuana in the workplace, Stauffer said.
“And on top of that, federal law requires that districts that receive federal funding have to have drug-free workplace policies in place,” he said. Federal law views marijuana as an illegal drug.
–Rebecca Jones of Education News Colorado
Chaz opens a jar labeled MMJ, pulls out some fresh green buds and crumbles the marijuana into a small pipe. He lights up the bowl and inhales as deeply as possible through the spasms, turning to blow smoke out his bedroom window.
A second puff, a deep cough and the attack passes.
Chaz is one of 41 children under 18 in Colorado who have a medical marijuana license, according to the most recent data available from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
And he’s convinced that marijuana is saving his life.
Chaz Moore, 17, lights a pipe with a dose of medical marijuana at his home in Colorado Springs on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012. Moore is one of 41 children under 18 in Colorado who have a medical marijuana license, according to Colorado state records. Two years ago doctors diagnosed him with myoclonus diaphragmatic flutter, an affliction causing muscle spasms in his chest that can recur dozens of times a day. Moore takes various medical marijuana products to treat it.(JOE MAHONEY/THE I-NEWS NETWORK)
Until a couple years ago, Chaz was a healthy kid, except for some childhood asthma that he was outgrowing. He played in his school band and on a baseball team.
Then he started getting hives and the mysterious spasms. At first, the attacks came three to five times a week and his family rushed him to the hospital each time.
Doctors tried treating him for allergies and gave him inhalers, along with high doses of painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs to relax his body.
“One week, we went nine times to the ER,” said his dad, Shan Moore. “We were going nuts, just totally freaking out. Nobody knew what was wrong.”
Doctors in Colorado Springs referred the family to National Jewish Health in Denver, where Chaz had an attack in an exam room. One of the doctors who observed the spasms had treated a patient with the same rare illness nearly 20 years ago.
Chaz finally had a diagnosis and began treatment at Children’s Hospital Colorado, where his pediatric neurologist tried a variety of medications. At one point, he was taking a cocktail of 16 pills three times a day.
The medications would work for a time, but not consistently.
So Shan Moore said he raised an “insane” idea with Chaz’s doctor – marijuana. He had seen reports online that it might help some patients with multiple sclerosis.
The father said he hesitated to consider marijuana in part because his own relationship with the drug goes “way back.”
Shan Moore first tried marijuana at age 10, became a self-described pothead and used everything else he could get his hands on. By his mid-30s, he said he was dealing drugs and wound up in prison for three years when Chaz was just 7.
Now 41, Moore says he’s been clean for several years. The last thing he wanted to consider was getting his son started on marijuana.
But the effects of the high doses of the prescription drugs were also alarming. The family decided to give marijuana a try.
Chaz said he had tried pot once before and didn’t like feeling high. Now he rarely experiences that feeling because the family shops for low-potency marijuana.
He has fine-tuned his medication over the last year. He starts each day with edibles like marijuana-infused peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or marijuana cheesecake.
The food has higher levels of chemicals that seem to fend off Chaz’s attacks and stay in his system longer, without the psychoactive effects that cause a high. When an attack strikes, he smokes for immediate relief.
His friends have never hit him up for marijuana, Chaz says, and he believes kids who abuse the drug are harming patients.
“You’re taking away from my medicine,” he said. “Even though you’re out there enjoying it, you’re messing with my medicine.”
Chaz no longer uses any other medications, but the marijuana created a new problem.
His school district, Harrison District 2, refused to allow the school nurse to give him marijuana. The family switched Chaz to a closer high school, hoping he could walk home when he had an attack, use marijuana and then walk back.
But the family said district officials didn’t like that idea either, telling them they feared Chaz would be impaired and disruptive.
District spokeswoman Jennifer Sprague declined to discuss Chaz’s case and said both federal and state law bar the district from administering marijuana.
“I was doing fine,” Chaz said. “I wasn’t disrupting anybody. My eyes weren’t red. I wasn’t smelling of pot. I was doing all of my work and wasn’t hurting anyone.”
Last April, after he started having as many as 35 attacks a day, Chaz enrolled in an online school.
Now he said he feels like he’s on house arrest, stuck in his bedroom with a small Dell laptop.
He’s lonely and says he sometimes loses track of what day it is because of the monotony. He’s more than a year behind his peers, but determined to get an education and become a counselor for kids in hospitals.
His dad shakes his head over the battles they’ve fought.
“Medical marijuana saved his life, but ruined it all at the same time,” Shan Moore said.
The family spends about $1,000 a month on various marijuana products and shops at five different Colorado Springs dispensaries. The father and son have become regulars on the pro-marijuana circuit, speaking at conventions.
Being so vocal about the benefits of marijuana has been costly. The father said he lost one job because his bosses didn’t like having such an outspoken employee. He now splits wood and trims trees, picking up jobs where he can. His wife works at a Denny’s.
Chaz is on Medicaid. The father said, altogether, they visited emergency rooms 117 times prior to starting marijuana. Now Chaz hasn’t been to the ER for more than a year and only goes to the doctor for routine checkups.
He doesn’t like marijuana – the taste of the food or the smell of the smoke. He feels guilty using it in the home he shares with his grandmother. He knows the damage drugs can do to a family. Right now, he sees no other options.
“If I couldn’t access marijuana,” Chaz said, “I would probably be dead.”
Marijuana dispensaries brace for crackdown
Aspen operator: ‘Yeah, it's a little nerve-racking'
The Aspen Times
ASPEN — Area medical marijuana providers admit they're a bit unnerved by last week's reports that federal authorities may crack down on the industry in Colorado next year, but operators say they're striving to strictly comply with state regulations while they wait and see what happens next.
A law-enforcement official told The Associated Press last week that enforcement action is under consideration for Colorado early next year despite state laws that regulate and tax the industry — moves that marijuana advocates hoped would spare the state from the kind of crackdown that occurred in California. There, dozens of medical marijuana businesses, landlords leasing property to growers, and retailers selling medicinal pot over the counter were targeted in Drug Enforcement Administration raids.
“It's certainly a lot more risky business than I intended to get into,” said the owner of Aspen Roaring Fork Wellness near Basalt, who asked not to be named. “Yes, I'm worried, but I have confidence we're going to be OK.
“In the state of Colorado, we've been regulated a lot more than in other states. I think they're going to leave most of us alone as long as we're complying with state law.”
Aspen Roaring Fork Wellness first opened in the Aspen Business Center before relocating to a location outside of Basalt early this year. It's one of a handful of medical marijuana businesses that operate in unincorporated Pitkin County and complies only with state laws. The county declined to regulate medical marijuana at the advice of county attorney John Ely.
Regulations had been drawn up and were ready for formal review when he advised county commissioners to drop the whole thing last summer.
“I don't think the county should be in the position of abetting the violation of federal law,” Ely told commissioners in June, when they subsequently voted to reject the proposed rules. Ely was scheduled to update commissioners on the state's medical marijuana regulations behind closed doors last week; the conversation is now scheduled Tuesday instead. He said he wants to update commissioners on the status of state law but isn't advocating any change in the county's course of action.
Last summer, he advised commissioners that the county should not ask its employees to issue licenses to marijuana businesses and enforce zoning laws related to medical marijuana because it puts them in a position of potential criminal liability.
Operators themselves, however, remain caught in the quandary of engaging in a business that violates federal law but is permitted under state law. There are 667 retail shops, or dispensaries, 926 cultivation operations and 246 infused-product manufacturers operating under Colorado law, according to figures from the state Revenue Department. The state is one of 16, plus the District of Columbia, that have passed laws legalizing marijuana for medical use.
“Yeah, it's a little nerve-racking,” Billy Miller, a partner in L.E.A.F., said of the potential federal crackdown in Colorado. L.E.A.F. was one of the first Aspen dispensaries to open when the industry exploded in Colorado in 2009. Its parent company also operates two growing facilities, both located in unincorporated Garfield County.
L.E.A.F. was recently inspected by a state official with the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division in a routine check for compliance, Miller said. Operators face daunting paperwork and filing requirements.
“There's quite a bit of administrative work to the business right now,” he said.
Lauren Maytin, an Aspen attorney who advises more than a dozen marijuana businesses in the Roaring Fork Valley as well as others around the state, believes the feds will target blatant violators, not operators who are working diligently to follow the letter of Colorado law.
“You're within 1,000 feet of a school, you're in trouble,” she said. Large-scale growers could also draw scrutiny, she predicted.
“Quite frankly, they could come in and arrest everybody,” Maytin said. “If they're not going to do that, then they're looking for something.”
Hippie town chafes under Colorado's medical pot rules
Kathleen Chippi, who runs the One Brown Mouse boutique but recently shut down her medical marijuana dispensary and smoking room, cursed as she blamed the government.
"I refuse to give up my ... constitutional rights to the Colorado Department of Revenue," she fumed, indignant over what she called intrusive oversight and abusive taxation of marijuana.
More than 8,200 feet high in the Rockies, state regulation arrived in this famously mellow, pot-friendly town after Colorado passed landmark legislation over the past two years to tax, license and govern the state's wild, for-profit medical marijuana trade.
Colorado now has the most heavily regulated marijuana industry in America. Even Nederland's Board of Trustees imposed a $5,000 local fee on new cannabis stores, hoping to cash in on pot prosperity.
But it has meant heartache for this hamlet of 1,400 people.
In 2010, Nederland voters passed a symbolic measure, declaring all marijuana legal in the hippie haven and former silver town renowned for its high-grade cannabis. In practice, the town already had permitted seven medical marijuana stores. As many as 14 were said to be operating - one for every 100 residents.
Now Nederland has three marijuana stores left. A bonanza in local sales taxes is drying up, and the town's marijuana growers are fed up.
Rather than pay state licensing fees and hefty costs for video security and other state mandates for selling medical marijuana, Chippi closed the doors of her Nederland store last year.
"This is insane. It's 'Reefer Madness' run amok," she said.
In Colorado, industrial marijuana cultivation thrives in warehouses in Denver and nearby Boulder. But Nederland's medical cannabis growers have been all but cut off from selling their product to the retail market by state rules requiring stores to grow their own plants or buy from other commercial centers.
The new regulations were a double blow to Nederland resident Mark Rose, 51, a former hospital trauma technician.
A marijuana grower fiercely proud of his "Chem Dawg" and "Sweet Island Skunk," Rose was forced out as a partner in the town's Grateful Meds pot store.
Years ago, Rose spent 10 days in jail after he was caught driving a pound of his personal Nederland stash to Ohio, where he briefly moved. Now Colorado's new medical marijuana rules ban people with a felony drug offense from working in the industry.
Rose sees a more universal indignity in the new cultivation rules that he says hurt small pot growers.
The rules were a buzz kill to high economic times that took off here after the U.S. Justice Department signaled in 2009 that it wouldn't target marijuana patients in states where medical use is legal.
Nederland sprouted with marijuana stores eagerly buying local weed. By 2010, town coffers brimmed with new marijuana income.
Some $80,000 in marijuana sales taxes accounted for 10 percent of the town's total. Pot tourism spiked overall sales taxes by some 50 percent as marijuana seekers from as far away as Durango - seven hours away - also filled restaurants, shops and the town's hotel.
"It was like a dream," Rose said. "Everybody in town was making extra money. We had everyone from 21-year-old snowboarders to 72-year-olds supplementing their Social Security income. But the state didn't like that. They wanted the Henry Ford (production) model. ... It's antitrust. It's a power grab."
The boom days unnerved some local officials.
"We had people from all over the country coming in and wanting to set up shop," said town clerk Teresa Myers. "Some were clearly questionable. And they saw ... a live-and-let-live kind of town."
Colorado would later ban out-of-state residents from working in its medicinal pot industry. And Nederland enacted local rules, including licensing fees on new pot businesses and renewal charges on existing stores.
As a result, no new stores came in. Most left. Local marijuana sales taxes are off by a third this year.
Nederland retains its mythical lure of legal weed - symbolized by a Florida man who stopped in recently at a local business, saying he heard this was the place he could score some pot. State law may supersede the town's legalization vote, but a sense of permissiveness persists.
"This town is chill," said Jessica Harris, 26, who sells pastries and coffee while people get their bicycles fixed at Randy's Happy Trails Bike Shop and Coffee. "People are happy, free to do what they want."
But next door, the Tea Alchemy Wellness Center - once part of the medical marijuana boom - is closed.
"Everybody wanted to get rich," Harris said. "That's the whole story. But state law is changing every second. It's made it pretty hard."
The new climate is challenging for Mike Tardiff, a construction worker who started Grateful Meds with Rose. Not only did he lose his partner, but Tardiff also has had to lease Denver warehouse space to grow for the store - blasphemous in Nederland.
Chippi, who just a year ago had "2,200 patients - double this town's population" and "over 80 strains of A-plus medicine" at her dispensary, remains defiant. She said she is suing the state and will reopen her pot shop - under her rules, not Colorado's.
Rose is headed to meet with medical marijuana advocates in Michigan. He said he will argue against following Colorado's "big business" regulatory model.
"They just couldn't stand the idea," he said, "of some hippies sharing the wealth."