The proliferation of medical marijuana dispensaries across the state is troubling to law enforcement and should be addressed by the state Legislature, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said while visiting Aspen on Wednesday.
With four in Aspen, a dozen in the Roaring Fork Valley and an estimated 100 statewide, medical marijuana dispensaries have been popping up like — ahem — weeds in the last few months thanks to changes in state and federal medical marijuana policy.
Colorado voters legalized marijuana for people with certain medical conditions in 2000 by passing Amendment 20. But it wasn’t until the Obama administration came to power saying it would no longer bust medical marijuana purveyors operating in compliance with state law that storefront dispensaries selling cannabis could feel safe from the federal government. And it took the 2008 striking down of a state regulation limiting dispensaries to five patients, a policy reaffirmed this summer, for these businesses to believe they might have a customer base. The amount of people registered to legally use medical marijuana in Colorado has nearly tripled in the last year to just above 11,000. That number is expected to grow to 15,000 by year’s end.
Possessing and distributing marijuana, even for medical purposes in states where such activity is legal, remains a federal crime. Suthers, a Bush-appointed U.S. Attorney from 2001 through 2005, said the Department of Justice during his tenure would not go after medical marijuana purveyors unless the operation involved more than 100 plants.
Although it’s taken nine years, Suthers said the boom in medical marijuana dispensaries “is precisely what I predicted” when Amendment 20 passed. He said his office has fielded concerns from police agencies across the state that medical marijuana dispensaries might become magnets for burglaries and other crimes in their communities.
Amendment 20 includes no guidance on how marijuana ought to be distributed to people who qualify. As such, Suthers said he thinks the state Legislature should offer that clarification. Whether or not it does is up to the people, through their state elected leaders, he said.
“Ultimately, citizens and the legislature are going to decide what they want,” he said.
Suthers, 57 and a Republican, is running for his second full term as attorney general in the 2010 election. He was appointed to the position in 2005 when former Attorney General Ken Salazar won election to the U.S. Senate. Suthers was meeting with newspapers in the Roaring Fork Valley Wednesday and attending a Republican Party fundraiser at a private home in Aspen.
When the medical marijuana amendment was proposed, Suthers said he “wasn’t crazy about it.”
“This wasn’t a medical marijuana thing, this was a legalization thing,” he said.
Suthers was only vaguely aware of Pitkin County’s top law enforcement official and his stated advocacy for treating drugs as a health matter and not a criminal matter.
“I’m not there,” Suthers said of Sheriff Bob Braudis’ position. However, “I encourage the debate. I think it’s healthy,” he said.
Suthers said he doesn’t believe medical marijuana will be a campaign issue for him. It’s unclear if his only announced opponent so far, Cañon City attorney Dan Slater, will make it one.
“Frankly, most people expect law enforcement officials to have a more conservative attitude,” Suthers said.