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A newcomer's guide to cannabis in Colorado

Pot of duality

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Whether or not you're here in Colorado Springs for our blossoming weed scene, our blossoming weed scene is here for you. But though our state boasts one of the most clean and comprehensive structures for cannabis — California, for instance, barely regulates its haphazard system, something Washington also suffered with but recently remedied at the cost of its medical dispensaries — it can still be a bit much for the newcomer to navigate. So here are the basics of three key areas: buying medicinal, buying recreational and growing your own.

After pot prohibition took hold in the 1930s, medical marijuana — MMJ — is where all this began again, starting with the Golden State in 1996, spreading to Alaska in '98, Maine in '99 and Colorado in 2000, when Amendment 20 was passed by 54 percent of voters. Compared to the controversial, constantly developing scene we currently enjoy, this was largely an invisible development, more relevant to the personal user than to the state's population at large.

The earthquake came in October 2009, when President Obama's Department of Justice issued what became known as the Ogden memo, after the deputy attorney general who wrote it, which said U.S. attorneys "should not focus federal resources in [their] States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana." It was reassuring enough to inspire over 160 dispensaries into existence in Colorado Springs alone, though a combination of market forces and restrictive, state-level regulations enacted between 2010 and 2013 cut that number in half, to where it is today.

In this city, if you're not going to grow your own, therapeutic pot is the only pool you can play in, since Colorado Springs' City Council opted out of recreational stores last year, despite a majority of local voters supporting the concept. So, start by having a physician write you a recommendation; mail that, an application and the $15 fee to the state of Colorado; then receive your red ID card in return. If you don't plan to grow your own, then you'll designate a dispensary as your primary caregiver, which will give that business the right to grow your constitutionally protected six plants on your behalf, which you'll then buy back from them. In each dispensary, there's usually a candy store of accoutrements, other treatments and, well, actual (pot-infused) candy.

Then there's the very similarly structured recreational marijuana (RMJ), which came about after the historic passage of Amendment 64 in November 2012. Along with a measure in Washington, it succeeded where previous initiatives like the 2010 question in California had failed. The prevailing wisdom is that the efforts of the Colorado Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol to frame the election around a familiar concept instead of a tax-revenue pitch, which has always lost the greed-versus-public-health argument, was a key difference.

But, like we said, you don't have to (or get to) worry about that in Colorado Springs. Instead you can look west, to Manitou Springs, and south, to Pueblo County, for their recreational stores. Considering its coming April ballot question, Palmer Lake may also be an option. And, of course, there's always Denver.

But if you're more the growing type, here's what you need to know: Amendment 64 allows anybody over 21 to cultivate up to six plants, three flowering, essentially the same as Amendment 20. (See tiny.cc/wzldcx for more on the "how.") Recreational users are allowed to keep everything they grow, as long as it doesn't leave the growing premises — otherwise, possession is limited to an ounce and under — while medical users can possess up to 2 ounces, and can get a doctor's exception to grow even more than the baseline.

Either way, you might just be the list type, so here's a few facts to consider when deciding whether to be a medical-marijuana patient or not.

Medical marijuana pros

You can buy it locally, and you'll pay a whole lot less than your recreational brethren in Denver or Pueblo. Supply and demand will eventually even out, meaning these $400 recreational ounces may or may not be here to stay. But the 2.9 percent Colorado sales tax, 10 percent special sales tax, 15 percent excise tax, and any additional local taxes for RMJ will be with us no matter what. (Springs MMJ buyers just pay the usual 7.63-percent combined sales and use tax.) Also, points out local attorney Clifton Black, "If a patient is indigent, the [Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment] can place 'indigent' on the red card to avoid paying taxes."

Don McKay, co-owner of the Southern Colorado Medical Marijuana dispensary, puts the savings this way: "Really, mathematically — everything else aside but mathematically — when you calculate it out with the additional taxes, if they're buying more than $275 to $300 a year it's more advantageous to purchase a red card, just for the tax savings."

You can have more plants, and possess more pot — up to 2 ounces, as compared to the single ounce allowed for by Amendment 64. On the growing side, MMJ patients can receive a special waiver, with a physician's recommendation, granting permission to cultivate many more than the six plants (three flowering) outlined in the amendment.

The supply is going to be there. "The stuff that they had for [recreational], the product, was initially taken from the med side," says McKay, referencing how centers adding recreational sales were allowed, for one time, to convert medical plants to RMJ. "And then I don't know what they're going to do [longer-term] because it's going to take them four months to get a crop up."

Treating your ailment with MMJ helps legitimize marijuana as medicine, says Betty Aldworth, a Coloradan with the National Cannabis Industry Association. "There is a disturbing argument in the marijuana policy dialogue that suggests people living with chronic pain aren't 'real' patients, and therefore we're all faking it just to get our hands on marijuana.

"Never mind that the cannabis and cannabis products are the same in both markets and equally legal: I'm keeping my red card because counting myself among Colorado's 100,000-plus patients is important personally and politically."

MMJ centers are thinking of you — specifically. RMJ shops "don't cater to the patients' needs," writes Laura Kriho of the Cannabis Therapy Institute. "They are designed to sell cannabis recreationally. Recreational users do not have the same requirements for strains and preparations that medical patients do. So patients may not be able to find the same types and qualities of medicines that [medical-marijuana centers] and caregivers supplied."

Medical marijuana cons

You have to have a debilitating condition considered treatable with marijuana, pay for a recommendation from a physician and pay the state that $15 fee annually to be on the registry. Recreational marijuana just requires an ID saying the bearer is 21 or older.

You have to deal with privacy concerns. Take, for example, last year's state audit of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which administers the patient registry, that resulted in an "F" for the department. "The Auditor uncovered numerous serious security breaches that proved the confidentiality of the registry could no longer be trusted," Kriho writes.

• Without a special dispensation from a physician, if you're growing at home, you often exceed the possession limit immediately upon harvesting, since a single plant can yield more than six ounces. "Once you harvest, you normally are over the ounce limit," says Denver attorney Sean McAllister, "whereas with recreational, the entire harvest is legal."

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