Are Denver's New Regulations Too Strict?

Denver's City Council approved a broad set of regulations for the city's booming medical-marijuana industry Monday night over the objections of dozens of cannabis advocates who say the rules clamp down too hard on their businesses.

The regulations require the licensing of medical-marijuana dispensaries, impose 1,000-foot buffers between the shops and schools or child-care facilities, bar on-site marijuana consumption, mandate certain security procedures and prohibit felons from opening a dispensary.

"We did our jobs, and we should hold our heads high for what we were able to do in this first phase," said Councilman Charlie Brown, who pushed for the ordinance.

The council unanimously approved the ordinance at the close of a nearly four-hour meeting. During the public hearing that preceded the vote, dozens of dispensary owners, medical-marijuana patients and cannabis advocates urged the council to reject the regulations, calling them unconstitutional and over-reaching.

Speakers particularly singled out the 1,000-foot buffers, which medical-marijuana lawyer Rob Corry said amount to a "de facto ban" on new dispensaries in Denver. Other speakers focused on the Dec. 15, 2009, cutoff date for dispensaries to be exempted from the spacing requirements, saying that it is unconstitutionally retroactive and would force hundreds of businesses to close their doors.

"Many of these regulations are not reasonable regulations," attorney Lauren Davis told council members. "They are strangulations that will hurt patients and caregivers."

A smaller number of Denver residents — including a trio of moms from the Stapleton neighborhood concerned about plans for a dispensary to open several hundred feet from a school — spoke in favor of the ordinance, arguing for even tougher spacing restrictions. They cited concerns about crime at dispensaries. Council members said they received phone calls and e-mails from many more residents expressing concerns about the explosion of dispensaries.

"What about the exposure of our children to this kind of activity and crime that has accompanied some dispensaries?" Christie Gosch asked council members.

A number of council members, while supporting the ordinance, also acknowledged that it represented more of a starting point for Denver's medical-marijuana regulations than a finish line.

"This is a very hard issue; this is the first time we've ever had to deal with this," said Councilman Paul Lopez. "It's not going to be perfect. We're going to work on this in the years to come."

Legislative shift

Monday's action capped a dramatic handful of days for Colorado's work-in-progress medical-marijuana policy.

Over the weekend, state Sen. Chris Romer, a Denver Democrat who was drafting a regulatory bill that he said he hoped would strike a compromise between the pro-pot and anti-pot camps, yanked most of his proposal from consideration, scolding both sides for being intractable. Medical-marijuana advocates cheered the move Monday — many had been opposed to the bill anyway.

But it also meant that the only dispensary regulatory proposal remaining before state lawmakers is a stricter one backed by law enforcement officials that would eliminate medical-marijuana dispensaries altogether.

Teamwork urged

Brown urged cannabis advocates to be flexible in negotiating for regulations, saying that the possibility of dramatic changes to Colorado medical-marijuana law loomed. Denver's ordinance would defer to state law, should the state adopt stricter regulations.

"If you believe in the dispensary model — and I believe in the dispensary model — you better start working now to save it," Brown said.

Medical-marijuana advocates reiterated their threats to go to court and to the voters if they feel the legislature's regulations unlawfully clamp down on their industry. Threats of lawsuits surfaced during Denver's adoption of the new regulations Monday night, as well.

Stan Zislis, the owner of a Centennial dispensary that successfully won a preliminary injunction against an effort to shut it down, warned Denver council members that dispensaries would take the city to court if the regulations were approved.

"You are inviting lawsuits," Zislis said.

Denver assistant city attorney David Broadwell, though, told the council that the ordinance was within the city's authority and did not violate the constitution. The city is allowed to create regulations that apply to existing businesses, he said. He explained that legal prohibitions against retroactive laws are intended to apply to laws that attempt to criminalize past behavior rather than regulate it.

Councilman Michael Hancock said he understands the council didn't please cannabis advocates with the ordinance but said council members made a genuine effort to work with them.

"Denver did not say no," he said. "Denver could have said no to dispensaries as other cities have done. Denver did not."

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