Pubdate: Wed, 15 Feb 2012
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2012 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Dan Freedman
Note: Dan Freedman is national editor in the Hearst Newspapers
Washington Bureau.


Forget about "Rocky Mountain High." In Colorado, the medical marijuana
industry is a tightly regulated amalgam of businesses policed by
gun-toting agents of the state's Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division.

While medical marijuana providers in California are wary of stepped-up
federal law enforcement, comparable businesses in Colorado are
confident that despite growing pains, their industry - enshrined in
the state's Constitution - will continue to thrive.

"We are on an even keel and moving forward," said Jason Lauve, board
member of the Association of Cannabis Trades for Colorado and
publisher of Cannabis Health News magazine.

Colorado and California are among the 16 states that, along with the
District of Columbia, have laws permitting marijuana use for medicinal
purposes. But while each of the laws conflicts with federal law,
Colorado and California represent case studies in the varying degrees
of U.S. law enforcement response.

John Walsh, the U.S. attorney in Colorado, sent letters last month to
23 of the state's estimated 600 marijuana dispensaries and their
landlords, ordering the businesses to close or relocate because they
are within 1,000 feet of a school.

"We're trying to focus our efforts on where we think there is the most
public harm," Walsh told Colorado Public Radio. "And schools are our
first focus."

Level of state oversight

But that's a light dusting compared with the enforcement actions
directed by U.S. attorneys in California, which include letters to
landlords threatening forfeiture, IRS letters seeking back taxes and
telling medical marijuana businesses they can't deduct expenses, and
DEA raids on dispensaries and marijuana "grows."

The varying reactions of U.S. attorneys in the two states may be
attributable to the level of state regulation of the medical marijuana
industry - or lack of it.

Colorado's regulations, which went into effect last summer, try to
ensure that the medical marijuana industry caters only to patients
with legitimate health-related needs.

Marijuana dispensaries must grow 70 percent of the marijuana they
sell. Counties and localities can ban marijuana dispensaries
altogether if they choose.

The state's 77 pages of regulations stipulate everything from
background checks for employees to trash disposal. State auditors
monitor all business transactions.

In addition, the state created the Medical Marijuana Enforcement
Division, a force of plainclothes officers who carry badges and guns.
Their job is carry out scheduled and unscheduled on-site inspections,
respond to complaints, and work with other law enforcement agencies to
investigate any suspicious activity.

"It's a closed system," said the division's spokeswoman, Julie
Postlethwaite. "Medical marijuana is tracked from starter plant to
sale to patient. The aim is to insure that there's no black-market

Patchwork of rules

By contrast, California's Department of Public Health issues medical
marijuana ID cards to patients and caregivers. But beyond that, most
regulation of the state's 1,200 or so dispensaries is up to counties
and localities, which provide an uneven patchwork of rules and minimal

Federal law enforcement officials say California's medical marijuana
industry is ripe for exploitation by the black market.

"The California Compassionate Use Act (of 1996) was intended to help
seriously ill people, but the law has been hijacked by profiteers who
are motivated not by compassion but by money," U.S. attorney Melinda
Haag in San Francisco said in October.

George Mull, a Sacramento lawyer who is president of the California
Cannabis Association, said he is pushing a ballot initiative that
would create a state medical marijuana enforcement bureau similar to

"We'd go a long way toward solving federal concerns if we can say with
a straight face that we have a well-regulated system," Mull said.
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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.