Thursday, February 4, 2010

In the Weeds: Regulations Lag as Medical Marijuana Grows

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: new efforts to limit the sale of medical marijuana.

Last week, the Los Angeles City Council approved an ordinance that would
close many medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the city. The
backlash is brewing elsewhere, too, including debate and a vote today in
Colorado's Senate.

"NewsHour" correspondent Tom Bearden has our report from Denver.

WOMAN: I feel like my life is in danger. I did not purchase a house
right here to feel like I can't go outside my front door.

TOM BEARDEN: For the past three months, angry residents have gathered in
town hall meetings asking politicians to slam the brakes on one of the
fastest growing businesses in Colorado.

MAN: We're gambling with our kids, our families, our own lives. And why
not just stop everything until we actually learn something about how to
run this industry?

TOM BEARDEN: The new industry is medical marijuana, specifically, the
commercial dispensaries that have opened in neighborhoods all over the
state. At last count, Denver alone had over 300. More than the number of
Starbucks is the oft-quoted statistic.

Some residents are concerned the shops could lead to increased crime and
encourage loitering near their homes. The dispensary industry has
blossomed virtually overnight, with few regulations or rules, and left
politicians at the state and local level scrambling to catch up.

Ten years ago, Coloradans voted to amend the state constitution to allow
doctors to prescribe marijuana for medical purposes. Subsequent state
regulations limited caregivers to five patients a piece. But it was
still against federal law. And police continued to arrest people.

So, for years, only about 2,000 people registered as patients. Then, a
court threw out the five-patient limit. And, last year, the U.S. Justice
Department announced it would no longer enforce federal anti-marijuana
laws in the 14 states that allow its medical use.

Marijuana dispensaries began popping up everywhere. And the patient
registry exploded to 40,000 people, with 20,000 more waiting for
approval in the coming m onths. That's created a huge business
opportunity for people like Ryan Vincent. He's a medical marijuana user
himself to relieve pain from a degenerative eye disease.

He hated buying the drug in what he described as a back alley
environment. So, in November, he opened up The Health Center, which
offers patients a variety of marijuana products, from traditional
leaves, to brownies, to topical lotions.

RYAN VINCENT, The Health Center: I have built a very safe environment
for people. It would be very safe for my own grandmother to come in
here. And that is kind of the idea of how we built this place.

TOM BEARDEN: But some people think too many dispensaries have opened up
in far too many places. City Councilman Charlie Brown recently led the
effort for a Denver law that requires any new dispensaries to be located
1,000 feet from schools and day cares and from other dispensaries. Brown
says he knows more needs to be done, but it isn't easy.

CHARLIE BROWN, Denver city councilman: It's like trying to pick your
teeth with a rattlesnake. If you ever tried that, you know how hard it

You know, you are dealing with medicine. You're dealing with patients.
You're dealing with the dispensary owners. You're dealing with
neighbors, and you're dealing with schools. It all -- you can't please
everybody. And, so, you compromise.

TOM BEARDEN: Vincent says he welcomes more regulation and is working
hard to show that he runs a legitimate business that is not some front
for dealing drugs to recreational users. For instance, he accepts credit
cards and will only pay growers and suppliers with checks.

RYAN VINCENT: If we say, you know, we would like to write you a check,
and they say, no, no, no, cash only, we're not working with them. And
the reason being is because, we are a business. And we want those
tracked ratios. We want where our money is going. We want to have a
paper trail. We -- you know, at the end of the day, that is how you do

TOM BEARDEN: One of the criticisms I have heard from people who are
concerned about whether this is being sold indiscriminately are things
like the names of the products, like Afghan Diesel, Durban Poison,
Juliet, AK-47.

Does that hurt your cause when you try to establish yourself as a
genuinely legitimate business, that you are selling a product that has a
name like that?

RYAN VINCENT: We are trying to move away from those names. One of the
things that we are actually working on doing right now with the growers
is coming up with some names that might be more acceptable, something
that more people can use, and it would make more sense to the patient.

TOM BEARDEN: But making marijuana use more acceptable is what has many
residents like Christine Tatum-Thurstone so upset.

CHRISTINE TATUM-THURSTONE: The more of these dispensaries pop up, the
more we normalize this, the more that we mistake this as a substance
that doesn't have any problems. Basically, what Colorado has done is,
it's using the medical community as a really cheap and easy -- and it's
a really cheap, easy backdoor to legalization of marijuana.

TOM BEARDEN: As various local officials in both urban and rural
communities wrestle with how to deal with the dispensary issue, most
people are now looking to the state legislature for a more comprehensive

State Senator Chris Romer, a Democrat, originally drafted a bill that
would have required dispensaries to register their products in a
database and provide other health services. But he says he couldn't get
the support of other colleagues. So, he scaled his bill back to one that
would put an end to the practice of dispensaries paying physicians to
write prescriptions for medical marijuana.

STATE SEN. CHRIS ROMER, D-Colo.: You will no longer be able to have a
dispensary that has a doctor on site who is paid per prescription,
because I can't think of another circumstance in medicine where we
actually pay doctors for each prescription they write.

TOM BEARDEN: On the statehouse side, Republican Tom Massey is working
with law enforcement groups on a bill to reestablish the old
five-patient limit and apply it to dispensaries.

STATE REP. TOM MASSEY, R-Colo.: I have had a number of concerns,
complaints, questions, are we trying to put dispensaries out of
business? And that's clearly not the goal of this. We're trying to make
sure that we have a regulatory piece that works within the framework of
the doctor-patient-caregiver relationship and honors the intent of the
voter for the constitutional amendment.

TOM BEARDEN: Dispensary owner Vincent says a five-patient restriction
with not only put him out of business; it would drive the marijuana
business back into basements and back alleys.

RYAN VINCENT: It's going to go all back underground again, which is --
which maybe is what his idea is. And then we put it all back underground
and we will tick off all of the neighborhoods. And then they will all
vote it out.

TOM BEARDEN: Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers say they know,
whatever action they take, the issue is not likely to be resolved this
session. And they concede, everything would change if the federal
government decides to go back to enforcing marijuana laws.

How do you craft a state law or set of state laws to deal with an issue
that is still fundamentally illegal at the federal level?

CHRIS ROMER: Well, it's difficult, but we're working on that. And the
Obama administration has clearly said the states can experiment with
this and create our own model. I hope we ultimately can be the people
who really create the best medical marijuana laws for those
chronically-ill patients.

TOM BEARDEN: Today, the Colorado Senate passed the Romer bill. It now
moves over to the House.

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