Senate gives tentative OK to pot measure

Bans on some dispensaries, sales tax included in legislation

Local governments still could ban dispensaries, and patients still would pay sales taxes on medical marijuana under a bill that won preliminary approval Wednesday in the Colorado Senate.

After more than five hours of debate and nearly 30 amendments, not all of which were approved, the measure that senators passed was nearly identical to one that cleared the House last month.

Under it, dispensaries would have to grow their own marijuana either on site or at some other location, pass criminal history checks on owners and their employees, and bar anyone convicted of a drug crime from working in them.

Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver and one of the bill’s sponsors, said he expects those and other regulations to cull the more than 1,900 dispensaries already in operation by as much as 50 percent.

He said that was necessary, in part, because there are “knuckleheads” operating some dispensaries who see medical marijuana as a first step to legalizing recreational use of the weed and are using their shops to do that.

“(The bill) is definitely very heavy on regulation and law enforcement to start, but I think that’s where we need to start,” Romer said. “Is there a knucklehead factor out there? I’m pretty sure there is. We’re going to get the knuckleheads out very quickly, and the legitimate businesspeople are going to come in.”

The Senate made two major changes to the bill. It would require owners to have lived in Colorado for two years before opening centers, which the dispensaries are to be called, but allowing those already operating since last winter to remain. And it would exempt the off-site grow operations from being subject to the state’s open records laws, allowing only the state and local law enforcement agencies to know where they are.

Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, tried to eliminate all sales taxes from being assessed on users, but he lost that battle. He later was able to exempt the most critically ill users from having to pay the tax.

“What started off as a bill regulating marijuana has turned into a bill to help feed our addiction to spending,” Penry said. “To me it seems inappropriate, crass and wrong for us to on the one hand take money from taxing marijuana use and use it (for) drug treatment.”

The House version of the bill called for using the first $2 million in sales tax revenues to fund drug-abuse programs, but a legislative fiscal analysis of how much it will cost Colorado to administer and enforce the new regulations doesn’t estimate how much in sales taxes the state expects to earn.

It does, however, estimate the state would take in about $2 million a year in fees from operating licenses and background checks, and that money would be used to pay for the estimated 30 new workers who would be needed in various state agencies to administer and enforce the regulations.

Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, attempted to remove a provision that allows local governments to bar the centers by ordinance or let their residents vote on banning them.

Carroll said the law that legalized medical marijuana is in the Colorado Constitution, and allowing a local opt-out would be unconstitutional.

Opponents, however, said that wouldn’t happen because the constitutional amendment never contemplated the dispensary model, and independent caregivers still could operate within the banned area.

The bill limits caregivers to no more than five patients under the new regulations, but increases that to 16 patients in cities and counties that ban the centers.

House Bill 1284 requires a final Senate vote, which could come as early as today. Because of the changes, it will head back to the House for more debate. If those changes are accepted, it would head to the governor.


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