My phone’s been ringing off the hook since Colorado voters passed Amendment 64 more than a month ago. My patients want to know if they need to renew their medical marijuana licenses — we prefer to call it cannabis — and potential patients are asking if they should even bother to do it now. My advice to them all is to take a deep breath, a step back and a few moments to consider the facts.
It’s not just my phone ringing. A local cannabis attorney has been fielding calls from all over the country about the new rules. People have been showing up in dispensaries all over town expecting to be able to purchase cannabis without a license, driving shop owners and employees nuts. Tourists already are planning trips to Colorado, expecting to toke their vacations away when they get here.
We met with the attorney to discuss the new law and get her take on what the path to legal recreational pot looks like. She said the problem is we don’t know what the final regulations will be, and they might be very strict. Visitors could end up being the most disappointed of all if the state applies the law only to permanent residents and requires photo I.D. for purchase, leaving pot tourists out in the cold. Bottom line: It’s too soon to light a celebratory joint whether you live here or not.
We know voters overwhelmingly approved the amendment, and some counties already are dismissing cannabis possession charges that would be legal under the new law. But some district attorneys, like Ken Buck in Weld County, are vowing to continue prosecutions until further notice. Police and sheriff departments across the state are exhibiting a similar disconnect, and judges are likely to have disparate views on it as well.
Although it may be tempting to ride the coattails of Amendment 64 and forego your medical cannabis license, I’m advising all my patients to give it a year. While legal cannabis appears to be on its way to becoming reality in Colorado, there are still too many variables and unknowns that could potentially put medical cannabis patients who do not renew their licenses at risk of arrest and prosecution. There’s just too much we don’t know.
Gov. Hickenlooper signed the law into effect on Monday, but it’s still going to be a long journey to establish the processes, rules and regulations required to usher in a new era of legal cannabis.
Now that Hickenlooper has signed the law, it instantly has made possession of an ounce or less legal in the state. However, it is still illegal to buy or sell cannabis in Colorado unless you are a registered medical cannabis patient and purchase from a licensed retailer or caregiver. Buying and selling includes any type of barter or exchange, which means non-medical cannabis commerce of any kind is still illegal for the time being.
Plus, we Coloradans still will need to navigate federal law that states cannabis is a Schedule I drug like heroin, LSD and ecstasy. By definition, Schedule I drugs have no medical benefit and a high addiction potential, according to the Feds, and a first-time offender’s sentence could turn into a de facto life sentence. The DEA said recently that their enforcement of the Controlled Substance Act remains unchanged.
Retail outlets for recreational cannabis won’t be operational until January 2014 at the earliest. A commission has to be established to regulate the industry, as is done with alcohol, and that commission needs time to do its job. A lot of groups, from the Colorado chapter of NORML to law enforcement organizations and the medical marijuana industry, have a stake in the outcome and need to be part of the process.
We know that retail outlets for recreational cannabis must be separate facilities from medical cannabis dispensaries. While medical dispensary owners will get preferential treatment in the licensing process for recreational cannabis retail, they will have to open entirely new facilities, which requires both money and time. It will be at least a year before retail recreational cannabis is legally available for purchase in Colorado.
Another huge unknown is how law enforcement agencies are going to enforce the new law. Law enforcement is primarily a local endeavor, and what is acceptable in one county under the new law may not be in another. Buck, in Weld County, has declared he will continue to prosecute those currently accused of “crimes” that would be legal under the new law, and it’s unclear what direction he will take now that Gov. Hickenlooper has signed it.
While there is light at the end of the tunnel, there are still too many variables and unknowns regarding the implementation of Amendment 64 to risk going commando without a medical cannabis license at this point. My patients use cannabis because they have serious medical conditions, and it helps ease the pain and suffering they endure on a daily basis.
My oath as a physician states that in treating my patients I will do them no harm or injustice. There is a motto in medicine that says by making his or her patients better, physicians are supposed to try to put themselves out of work. Though I voted enthusiastically for Amendment 64 and am looking forward to the day cannabis is fully legal, we’re not there yet.
I don’t want to see one of my patients arrested and prosecuted for something that is unquestionably legal with a proper license. Please be smart and keep your license current until the dust around Amendment 64 settles and there is an unquestionably legal path to purchasing cannabis without one. We will provide periodic updates about the progress towards implementing Amendment 64.
Doug Allen contributed to this column. Wendy Zaharko, M.D., lives in Aspen and can be reached at 319-0652 or firstname.lastname@example.org.