Pubdate: Fri, 05 Oct 2012
Source: Fort Collins Coloradoan (CO)
Copyright: 2012 The Fort Collins Coloradoan
Author: Robert Allen


A Year After Voters Banned Dispensaries, Safety of Access, Safety of 
Community at Odds

Medical marijuana in Fort Collins has moved from storefronts to shadows.

The city's 21 dispensaries, along with many of their advocates, are 
gone a year after voters approved a ban.

A banner for Kind Care of Colorado, formerly located at 6617 S. 
College Ave., is rolled up, collecting dust in storage along with 
thousands of dollars worth of security cameras, equipment and 
furniture. Dave Watson, 42, the store's former owner, said people are 
finding marijuana underground, like they did before the stores opened.

"Nothing good comes with that," he said. "Not one good thing. They're 
losing quality, they're losing control, they're losing safety, 
they're losing tax revenue. It's lose-lose in my eyes."

Marijuana-related crime statistics haven't changed noticeably since 
the dispensaries were closed Feb. 14. Law enforcers say the 
dispensary robberies have ended and the lack of visibility is better 
for schoolchildren. Medical-marijuana advocates say it's more 
dangerous now for patients who no longer have the same access to 
quality-monitored products.

Larimer County's state-approved medical-marijuana users have declined 
from 8,500 in mid-2011 to fewer than 5,000 as annual registrations 
have lapsed. In January 2009, there were 530.

"To me, it really drives home that the supply had a lot to do with 
the demand that we saw," said Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith, 
who campaigned to close dispensaries and opposes both marijuana 
ballot items in November. "If you had more pot shops than you had 
Starbucks, it sends a message."

Fort Collins police Capt. Don Vagge said he dosen't think closing 
dispensaries had as much to do with the recent decrease in registered 
users as heightened state regulations. He said police continue to 
bust illicit grow operations in all types of neighborhoods, but there 
is at least one noticeable difference since February.

"The atmosphere of marijuana's permissibility was much more visible," 
he said. "With dispensaries not being in business, medical marijuana 
or the use of marijuana is not as flagrant or open."

Another shot for medical pot Voters have another chance to decide on 
Fort Collins medical marijuana dispensaries a month from today.

Question 301 is aimed at bringing dispensaries back with a limit of 
one for every 500 patients. While last year's buzz drew National 
Geographic camera crews and robust public discussion, the ballot 
issue this year isn't as prominent.

"When we were trying to find volunteers, a lot had moved or left town 
because it left a bad taste in their mouth," said Kirk Scramstad, a 
former dispensary owner who's leading the charge to repeal the ban 
with Yes on 301. "Our numbers are drastically down. It's just a 
handful of us that meet once or a couple times per week."

The proposed repeal of the ban would still prohibit dispensaries 
within 1,000 feet of a school or a playground and within 500 feet of 
a church, child-care center or recreation site. And they would be 
subject to state regulations requiring digital surveillance and 
tracking of the product.

Scramstad said he was "pleasantly surprised" by how many local 
residents supported the petition to get on the ballot. But the 
prospects for medical-marijuana entrepreneurs are tainted by the 
possibility of yet another petition the next year.

"There's no laid-out path in front of you in this industry," Scramstad said.

Watson is optimistic. He's keeping his equipment in storage and 
picking up odd jobs such as motorcycle repair work while hoping to 
get back in business.

"I'm not intimidated at all about getting closed down again," he 
said. "I think there's a group of people opposed to it. I don't think 
the majority of people are opposed to it at all."

Coloradans in 2000 approved a constitutional amendment allowing 
medical marijuana through physicians' recommendations for a number of 
diseases and conditions including cancer, AIDS, muscle spasms and 
severe pain, among others. Some law enforcers have said young, 
healthy people are exploiting the law for recreational drug use.

In recent years, the state created a strict set of regulations for 
stores dispensing marijuana, and communities including Fort Collins, 
Loveland and Windsor have voted to ban the stores.

Treatment Cliff Riedel, the assistant Larimer County district 
attorney running unopposed for DA, isn't opposed to medical marijuana.

But the law "needs to be tightened up," he said.

"Let's bring it back to what the voters, in my belief, thought they 
were voting for," Riedel said, adding that treatment for cancer 
patients and the nausea that goes with chemotherapy is acceptable. 
"If medical marijuana will help that person, I have no problem with that."

He opposes Question 301. He said he continues to see in court white 
men between ages 20 and 35, absent apparent debilitating conditions, 
who use medical marijuana.

"It's my belief that Fort Collins is better off without those 
dispensaries," Riedel said. "I did not think it was an attractive 
thing to drive through the city of Fort Collins and see dispensary 
after dispensary."

Watson said he helped people with a variety of disabilities but that 
that as a dispensary owner, his work didn't involve deciding who 
receives a medical-marijuana card.

"If a young kid did come in who looked perfectly young and healthy, 
who am I to question the doctor's verification?" he said. "Everyone's 
got a reason why they need (medical marijuana)."

Watson said people frequently thanked him for providing safe access 
to quality medical marijuana. And he doesn't see how the benefits of 
closing the stores justify taking that away.

"The people that need marijuana are going to find it," he said. "It 
might have weeded out some small-time recreational users, but the 
people that really need it, they're getting it somewhere - whether 
it's under a bridge or on a street corner. You can't tell me that's a 
better deal than having it regulated."

Complexity, caregivers

A number of growers have transitioned into a caregiver model, often a 
home-based operation, that has fewer regulations but a low limit for 
the number of marijuana plants.

Watson's dispensary had served as many as 3,000. He still grows 
medical marijuana as a small-scale caregiver, providing for the legal 
limit of five patients.

Denver-based defense attorney Sean McAllister said he's had multiple 
clients in the Fort Collins area get charged with felonies for 
misunderstanding the laws regarding caregivers.

"There are a lot of people out there that have been listed by more 
than five (patients) that are operating under the assumption that 
they're legal," he said.

Patients list their caregiver through the state, and there's no 
mechanism to track whether a caregiver has reached the maximum number 
of patients allowed. This is one of several concerns, he said.

"There's a lack of clarity about when a plant is a plant... It is an 
unregulated mess with the caregiver system," McAllister said.

Sheriff Smith said his office, similar to when before dispensaries 
were shut down, continues to find grow operations ostensibly 
operating as caregivers. But it's seldom they're legitimate, he said.

Illicit drugs such as psychedelic mushrooms, schedule II painkillers 
and firearms have been found in raids.

"In our experience, it doesn't separate out between medical and 
illicit marijuana," he said, adding that lately people have been 
moving here to grow marijuana and sell it out of state for nearly 
double the price.


Meanwhile, voters statewide in November have a choice through 
Amendment 64 on whether to legalize marijuana for recreational 
purposes for anyone 21 and older. That would lead to recreational 
dispensaries similar to but separate from medical stores.

Similar lines have been drawn locally with that issue. Law 
enforcement opposes it, and medical-marijuana advocates generally support it.

Grow operations continue to be discovered by law enforcement, and 
more will be busted. Smith said his investigators have a list of 19 
locations they've targeted but haven't had time to obtain warrants 
for, in part because of the complexity they've run into when growers 
claim medical status.

On both ballot choices, voters will decide whether to keep marijuana 
underground or in shopping centers.

"I don't think that you sit there and you throw up your hands and 
say, 'Because it's such a difficult problem, we just legalize it and 
we don't have to deal with it,'" Riedel said.

Watson disagrees: "The sooner people in Fort Collins realize 
marijuana's not going away, the better."
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