Pitkin County now has a licensing regime in place to approve medical marijuana businesses, despite one commissioner’s protests on Wednesday that having such a system required a leap in logic because of pot’s continued prohibition under federal law.
Colorado voters in 2000 amended the state Constitution to allow medical marijuana use. More recently, state lawmakers set up a system where medical marijuana growers, edible manufacturers and sellers must get approval from their local governments before the state will grant them a license. The state also performs background checks on all people involved with medical marijuana businesses, who are not allowed to have a criminal history involving drugs.
On a 2-1 vote Wednesday, Pitkin County commissioners approved a system, molded after Boulder County, where the county manager has the authority to approve or deny license applications. Commissioners would only hold hearings on permitting a business when the license is up for renewal, and only if the county had fielded complaints about the operation. The new rules grandfather in existing businesses.
They also prohibit certain types of medical marijuana businesses in the Fryingpan area of the county, in Redstone’s commercial district and in Snowmass/Capitol Creek, based on the wishes of neighborhood caucus committees in those areas.
Commission Chair Michael Owsley said he thought the board should hold a public hearing on each license application, as it would do with a liquor license.
Owsley also took issue with a provision of the regulations that don’t allow people with a criminal record involving drugs to participate in the medical marijuana trade. Since the business is illegal under federal law, wouldn’t that mean that no one’s license could be renewed?
“The degree to which we have to adjust our logic to support this I am just not capable of,” Owsley said.
In previous hearings on the regulations, Owsley called medical marijuana a “sham.”
Commissioner Jack Hatfield said he’s “thought long and hard on how to approach this.” He thanked an unnamed medical marijuana business person for showing him around their commercial grow site and dispensary, where he noted the high security measures and voluminous paperwork required by state regulators.
Hatfield also said he’s been educated about the benefits many sick people derive from marijuana.
“It’s not a sham, Michael,” he said.
Hatfield pointed out that the county is complying with state law by enacting the regulations, and he’s “very comfortable with where this sits.”
“We don’t need to make a mountain out of a molehill,” he said.
Commissioner Rachel Richards said she could see where Owsley was coming from, but that she takes a different view. Colorado voters approved medical marijuana, and Colorado has a history of bucking the federal government on prohibition, as it did when it allowed the sale of alcohol before the federal government passed the 21st Amendment, which ended the prohibition of that substance, she said.
“Think of it as voter nullification of rules or laws that generally aren’t germane to the public today,” Richards said.
The state’s regulatory system also is rigorous, and is being looked to as a model by other states, Richards said.
Attorney Lauren Maytin, who represents many of the marijuana businesses in the region, presented the commissioners with a statement from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that said the Department of Justice would take a hands-off approach to medical marijuana when providers are operating in strict compliance with state law.
The problem with California, where the feds regularly raid medical marijuana businesses, is that the medical marijuana laws are ambiguous, Maytin said. In Colorado, on the other hand, the law is much more clear, she said.
“If the federal government wanted to come in and shut Colorado down, they would have done that already,” she said.
She said having Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock review initial license applications is an appropriate procedure, and if there were problems reported with the licensee, then it would be reasonable for county commissioners to have a look.
Commissioners agreed to continue examining the regulation system going forward, and make changes as necessary.