Questions arise on medicinal pot

While the Grand Junction City Council said, “Slow down!” Monday to a medical marijuana boom, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers offered additional advice: “Tax it.”

“Medical marijuana is tangible property that is generally subjected to state sales tax,” Suthers wrote in response to a question from Gov. Bill Ritter.

That’s certainly welcome news. With the state budget in terrible shape as a result of the faltering economy, and with medical marijuana perhaps the only booming economic sector in the state right now, getting a state cut of those blossoming sales is sensible.

Here in Grand Junction, the city has been requiring medical marijuana dispensaries to obtain sales-tax licenses since the pot boom began. But the speed with which the business is spreading has caught city officials off guard. On Monday night, the City Council adopted a moratorium on new dispensaries, beginning next month, to allow city and state authorities time to develop regulations on what constitutes a licensed dispensary and how they may operate.

There are currently 32 medical-marijuana businesses in the city with sales-tax licenses, and more applications are pending. The number has nearly doubled in just a couple of weeks. So it’s natural that city officials want to get a better handle on this rapidly expanding business to ensure that both customers and the general public are adequately protected.

But the moratorium should be relatively brief. It shouldn’t be a vehicle to allow existing dispensaries to prosper while potential competitors are kept out of the city. That sort of action is likely to backfire, since dispensaries are already beginning to crop up in unincorporated parts of Mesa County.

This unexpected boom in medical marijuana was fueled by two actions this year, even though Colorado voters approved the medical-marijuana amendment to the state Constitution back in 2000.

The first came when the Colorado Board of Health, reacting to a judge’s ruling, dropped its long-standing rule that prohibited a dispenser of medical marijuana from having more than five customers. The potential for unlimited customers suddenly made the business of selling medical marijuana a lot more appealing.

The second action was the announcement by the Obama administration that it would not prosecute those who sell medical marijuana in states that have legally adopted medical pot measures.

However, as Attorney General Suthers noted, Colorado approved its medical marijuana amendment with very broad guidelines and little regulation. For instance, the language of the amendment allows people to receive pot for things like chronic disease or severe pain. If a doctor says marijuana might help. The result, as Daily Sentinel reporter Amy Hamilton demonstrated in her article on Sunday, is that it’s relatively easy for virtually anyone to obtain approval to purchase medical marijuana right now.

Medical marijuana has become a vehicle for de facto legalization of marijuana. Coloradans may or may not believe that is appropriate, but we ought to have a public debate on it, and soon. Perhaps that will come when the Legislature takes up questions about regulating medical marijuana early next year.


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