As soon as the Colorado Legislature passed House Bill 1284 last week, alarms went off throughout Colorado Springs' medical-marijuana industry — and among concerned patients.
That bill allows cities to supersede state law by prohibiting MMJ dispensaries. Given the Springs' cantankerous personality, that threw a scare into many operators, hundreds of dispensary employees who value their jobs, and the thousands of area residents whose lives already have been rejuvenated by medical marijuana.
So this column's purpose is singular: Let's eliminate the fear that City Council might vote to shut down dispensaries. Many local dispensaries might go away with state regulations, but this city will license and regulate them. And barring a major turnabout, it should become official sometime in June.
My approach was simple, asking all nine Council members how they would vote on the question of licensing or outlawing dispensaries.
Six of the nine say they will vote to allow dispensaries: Tom Gallagher, Bernie Herpin, Jan Martin, Sean Paige, Mayor Lionel Rivera and Vice Mayor Larry Small. Two plan to vote no: Darryl Glenn and Scott Hente. Randy Purvis is undecided, saying he still needs to interpret the state bill.
Based on their responses, it's hard to imagine multiple supporters of dispensaries changing their minds, though they come from different perspectives.
Gallagher has been a strong, unflinching defender of medical marijuana.
"I don't know how you get around the constitutional amendment [approving MMJ in 2000]," he says. "I've spent very little time on the right and wrong of it, because that was already decided. The time for that battle was 10 years ago. Our job now is to figure out how to make it work. And it's already generating some significant revenues for the city."
Herpin adds, "The state constitution allows medical marijuana, and the dispensaries are a consequence of that. All along, I've been in favor."
Small actually feels Council made this decision with two earlier actions: seven months ago, establishing a task force led by Paige and Gallagher to pursue solutions, and three months ago, informally supporting a draft city ordinance with rules and limits for local dispensaries.
"I'm sure that some people still might be worried," Small says, "but we have the [licensing] ordinance in place, and all we've really been waiting for is the state bill so we don't do anything that's not compatible with it. I'm prepared to go forward now. I feel there's a legitimate need for it in the community, based on the people who have appeared before us and the input from medical marijuana users. ... I think this is doable and it'll be an asset to the community."
Glenn couldn't disagree more, saying, "I'm not going to be supportive or make too many friends. But regardless of what happens, the other side will file a lawsuit, and my preference would be that instead of the court system, proponents of this should put something on the ballot to clean this up and let the voters decide. ... We've got to let people decide these things, instead of allowing legislative bodies to do it."
Hente explains that he's been swayed by numerous local physicians who've told him that few people really need medical marijuana, too many dispensaries already have popped up, and the product quality is inconsistent.
Glenn and Hente are firm in their stances, but even if Purvis joins them, they're outnumbered.
When the time comes to vote, the issue won't be quite this simple. The zoning portion of regulations must go through the city planning commission, and it's already too late to get that done by July 1 — the date the state law takes effect and any unlicensed dispensaries have to close until at least August 2011. But Small and others are fine with licensing the current dispensaries, then adding the zoning and other details in the next couple months.
"We as Council need to send a clear signal," Paige says. "We've been moving steadily in this direction, so I don't know why we would take a U-turn now. ... I think we'll get there."
Also, the county commissioners appear prepared to vote by mid-June to extend their current regulations, allowing dispensaries to operate in specific commercial zones of unincorporated areas.
And with that, anxious medical marijuana users and dispensary owners should stop fearing the worst.