DENVER — Hundreds of marijuana smokers stood up at a Colorado Board of Health meeting Monday and dismantled the pothead image one stereotype at a time.
For starters, they motivated off their couches and packed the Tivoli Student Union on the Auraria campus to protest a proposal to limit medical marijuana providers to five patients each. The audience was made up of persons in wheelchairs and crutches, reefer-promoting police officers, AIDS and cancer patients, and a woman who described herself as a “pro-life Republican mother.”
Another mom, Aspen attorney Lauren Maytin, who has a 16-month-old, joined the chorus of cannabis crusaders who said changing the rules would be bunk. There are currently no limits on how many patients a provider can treat.
“If adopted, these changes would endanger Colorado’s children. We should be discouraging neighborhood drug operations and encouraging safe, responsible dispensary choices outside of the home,” she testified before the board, arguing that legal dispensaries would minimize youth exposure to illicit drugs.
Maytin, who has worked with the Colorado chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said Amendment 20, which Colorado voters passed in 2000, trumps the proposal that was on the table. The amendment allows residents to alleviate certain debilitating conditions with marijuana, but it has left law enforcement grappling with how to enforce U.S. drug laws.
A medicinal marijuana dispensary is now operating in Carbondale, another is opening in Glenwood Springs, and it might not be long before Aspen has one too. Maytin said she has clients in Aspen who were waiting to see what transpired at last night’s Colorado Board of Health meeting before deciding how to proceed.
After 12 hours of discussion, the board voted to make minor amendments to the state’s medical marijuana system, but it rejected the five-patient rule. The audience members erupted into applause and high-fives when the decision was made. There were only about 50 people left from what had been a crowd of 500. Throughout the day, earsplitting cheers and loud jeers showered the hall as the public made it clear which decisions and speakers they did and did not favor.
Police, prosecutors and the state’s chief medical officer turned out to support the rule change, arguing it was needed to better define who can legally grow marijuana and to prevent the existing system from fraudulent claims.
Ron Hyman, registrar of vital statistics at the state health department, said there has been “explosive growth” in the number of registered pot patients. Colorado’s registry has grown by almost 1,000 patients per month this year, he said, including 2,000 new patients just last month. Hyman said he predicted that the state would have 15,000 registered patients by the time 2010 rolls around.
“We’re doing the same amount of work in a day that we used to do in over a month,” he said.
But most the audience that came out Monday were cannabis crusaders.
“When I came back from the war, I had real bad PTSD and torn ligaments,” said Jonathan Edens, an Iraq war vet and registered medical-marijuana patient from Colorado Springs. “I was so addicted to pills, I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror without being disgusted. Now that I’ve started smoking marijuana, I’ve dropped 50 pounds and am off most of the medication I was on.”
A lawyer from Summit County told the board he didn’t want them to “waste the taxpayers’ money” in making a decision he said would later lose in court. He also said regulators failed to take into account the small businesses that have answered the demand for medical marijuana, and that limiting caregivers to five patients each would be especially bad for Colorado’s rural communities, where access to the plant can be more difficult than in more populated locales.
Others warned that if medical marijuana is too difficult to obtain, people will buy it on the streets, where drug transactions can get a lot more dicey.
“More regulation drives people to the black market, and that means patient care suffers,” said Dr. Paul Bregman.
“If this law passes, patients will lose their access to safe medicine and some will die. Please be compassionate,” warned a Colorado dispensary owner.
When a board member asked the dispensary owner how many patients he thinks would be reasonable for his operation, he set the bar high. “I’d like to be under the same standards as Walgreens or a Wal-Mart pharmacy,” the man said.
Others played on the “just say no” to drugs slogan championed by the Reagan administration, as they asked the board to “just say no” to the rule change.
In the end, that’s what happened. Additionally, the board rejected a proposal that would have required caregivers to help patients with daily activities and it better defined medical marijuana terms outlined in state law.