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Feature: Colorado Hearing Monday on Plan to Limit Dispensaries Expected to Draw Loud Opposition

Update: Medical marijuana supporters WON -- the proposal was defeated.

On Monday, the Colorado Board of Health will hold a key public hearing on a controversial proposal to impose restrictions on the state's medical marijuana providers. The board is likely to get an angry earful from patients and providers worried that the restrictions will effectively shutter the state's burgeoning dispensaries and make it more difficult for patients to obtain their medicine.
sign of the times
Colorado authorities tried the same thing five years ago, but a state judge slapped them down for failing to hold any hearings. They are also somewhat hamstrung because the measure passed as a constitutional amendment, making any alteration of it constitutionally suspect.

The hearing comes as participation in Colorado's medical marijuana program has gone into overdrive. The number of registered patients is rapidly approaching 10,000, up from only 1,700 a few years ago. The number of physicians making medical marijuana recommendations is nearing 600. The number of dispensaries in the state has undergone a jump in recent months, and is now approaching 40.

If approved, the draft proposal from the Department of Public Health and Environment would put a real crimp in the Colorado medical marijuana boom. Two provisions of the proposal that are earning the most denunciations from patients and providers: One would tighten the definition of who qualifies as a licensed caregiver; the other would limit the number of patients a caregiver can provide for to five. There is currently no limit on the number of patients for whom a caregiver can grow or otherwise provide.

"There are two major problems with the proposal," said Denver attorney Warren Edson, one of the coauthors of the voter-approved constitutional amendment that legalized medical marijuana in the state. "The biggest problem is their redefinition to include the requirement that caregivers provide other services. The second biggest problem is the attempt to regulate a five patient limit."

"The proposed caregiver limit is a solution in search of a problem," said Mason Tvert, executive director of SAFER (Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation), which while concentrating on recreational use, also supports the state's existing medical marijuana program. "It would actually create several problems for the thousands of Coloradans whose doctors recommended they use marijuana to treat their debilitating conditions. Imagine walking into a pharmacy to pick up the medicine your doctor recommended, only to be turned away because it has already helped five people," he said.

"As if such a patient limit isn't ridiculous enough, these state bureaucrats have failed to provide even a single justification for why it's necessary," Tvert continued. "After all, pharmacies distribute countless medications that are potentially dangerous and frequently abused, whereas medical marijuana dispensaries distribute a substance less toxic and less addictive than beer."

The Department of Public Health and Environment indeed steadfastly refused to comment on its proposals. "The department's position will be outlined at a public hearing on July 20," was all it would say, which is a bit odd since the department's position is already outlined in the draft proposal set to be slammed on Monday.

Denver attorney Robert Correy has crafted an alternate to the department proposal (see it at the proposal link above), and is warning the board it would be wise to adopt his and not the department's. "My proposal would guard caregivers' anonymity, and was prompted by the murder of caregiver Ken Gorman," he said. "It would be much better for caregivers and patients, and it is much more consistent with the constitution than the health department proposal."

Adopting the health department proposal would amount to amending the constitution, said Correy. "While the Health Board can pretty much vote independent of what the public wants, it can't amend the constitution through regulation, which is what this proposal would do. The changes are radical and diametrically opposed to the constitutional definitions of caregivers and patients' rights," he argued.

The Monday hearing was originally set for March, but officials rescheduled it when it became apparent that the controversial proposals would draw a huge number of people wanting to offer public comments on it. Now, it has been relocated to Denver college campus conference room that can fit 500 people, but medical marijuana supporters say that may not be enough.

One person who will be there is Jim Bent, co-owner of the Patients Choice dispensary on South Broadway in Denver, which provides for some 300 patients. "I'll be handing out bottled water and snacks to help people stay there through the day so the board can see the level of support the current approach has," he said.

"If those proposed rules went into effect, I would have to lay off employees," said Bent, "We wouldn't be able to provide the services we currently do," which currently include massage therapy, music therapy, acupuncture, and nutrition classes. "With so many patients, we can get a discount rate, but if we were only taking care of five people, as the proposal recommends, we couldn't afford to do that."

Patients Choice is a shining example of the wave of dispensaries that have opened in Colorado since the Obama administration made it clear that it was not going to sic the DEA on medical marijuana providers operating in accord with state laws. More than 30 dispensaries have opened this year, transforming the face of medical marijuana in the Rocky Mountain state.

"When Obama said he would leave this alone, we had a shift from people in the black market trying to squeeze over," said Edson. "But now it is business people running real businesses. Thanks to Obama and the poor state of the rest of the economy, this is really snowballing. We added 1,200 patients and four big dispensaries in May alone."

Patients and providers are of the opinion that if it ain't broke, don't fix it, said Edson. "We have a system that is working, and I think the Board of Health is going to find out Monday that there will be a thousand people there telling them not to approve those changes," he said.

That would be a clear sign of the importance of the existing program for patients and providers, he said. "The board has never had more than a dozen people at its hearings for anything, but when they had 200 people show up for the pre-hearing earlier this year, that was a loud signal. Now, they've rescheduled in a room that holds 500, and that isn't going to be enough. They are supposed to go by public opinion, and public opinion will be incredibly lopsided telling them not to adopt these changes," Edson warned.

If, in the face of the expected near universal condemnation of the proposal, the Health Board members adopt it, Robert Correy will be waiting for them. "I will be ready to serve them with the lawsuit in person right after the vote," he vowed. "We'll be in court Tuesday morning before the same judge who slapped them down when they tried this in 2004."

Feature: California Tax Authority Says Legal Marijuana Could Generate $1.4 Billion in Tax Revenue a Year

California could take in nearly $1.4 billion a year in tax revenues from legal marijuana sales, the state Board of Equalization said in a report released Wednesday. The report was an analysis of the fiscal impact of a pending marijuana regulation, taxation, and legalization bill, AB 390, introduced in February by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco).
cash crop in waiting
The Board of Equalization estimates are slightly higher than a similar analysis by California NORML. That analysis estimated annual marijuana tax revenues at between $1.01 billion and $1.26 billion.

The Board of Equalization estimates that a $50-an-ounce fee on marijuana sales would generate $990 million a year. The state would also take in an additional $392 million annually in sales tax revenues. The board did not supply an estimate of the costs associated with implementing the bill, but said it would incur "substantial administrative costs." It also noted that there could be a decline in alcohol and tobacco tax revenues if a substitution effect occurred. In other words, some smokers and tipplers might switch to pot if it were legal.

Based on a review of the literature, the board estimated that annual marijuana consumption in California was one million pounds, or 16 million ounces. The board assumed that the legalization of marijuana would cause a 50% retail price drop, which would increase consumption by 40%, but that the imposition of the $50-an-ounce fee would cause that later figure to drop by 11%.

The revenue estimate comes as California grapples with a huge fiscal crisis. The state is running a $26 billion budget deficit, state employees are being furloughed or laid off, and some vendors and recipients of cash payments from the state are now being paid with IOUs.

As currently written, however, the Ammiano bill would not direct revenues into the state's general fund. Instead, they would be dedicated to drug prevention and rehabilitation programs.

That bill could get a hearing this fall, an Ammiano spokesman told the Chronicle Thursday. "Right now, we are tentatively looking at a hearing date around the end of the year," said Quintin Mecke in Ammiano's San Francisco district office.

"It defies reason to propose closing parks and eliminating vital services for the poor while this potential revenue is available," Ammiano said in a statement.

That sentiment was echoed by California NORML's Dale Gieringer, author of the report mentioned above. "With the state in dire financial straits, it makes no sense for taxpayers to be paying to arrest, prosecute and imprison marijuana offenders, when they could be reaping revenues from a legally regulated market," he said.

The report is also contributing to the ever-increasing buzz about marijuana legalization in California. Last week, the Marijuana Policy Project unveiled a TV spot touting the Ammiano bill. The ad, and its rejection by a handful of TV stations in major California markets, drew renewed national media attention to the issue, and this week, the Board of Equalization report is drawing media like flies to honey.

"The release of the estimate has certainly caused a new round of attention to the issue," said MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "The TV business channels have been especially interested. I was just interviewed by CNBC's Power Lunch, and Fox Business News is also very interested, as well as other media. The interest is certainly continuing," he said.

The report only adds to the growing momentum for marijuana legalization in the state, said Mirken. "It definitely bolsters the case that this is a significant pot of money sitting out there that the state is turning away right now."

The state government isn't the only California entity to express interest in marijuana tax revenues this week. Also on Wednesday, Los Angeles City Council members Janice Hahn, Dennis Zine, and Bill Rosendahl introduced a motion asking city finance officials to look into taxing medical marijuana sales in a bid to close the city's budget gap.

Los Angeles is home to hundreds of dispensaries -- estimates range from 400 to 700 -- doing a thriving business. Hahn argued that taxing the dispensaries could generate significant revenues. The motion itself alluded to a proposed tax increase on medical marijuana dispensaries in Oakland -- proposed by the dispensaries themselves -- which is projected to bring in $300,000 for city coffers. Oakland has only four dispensaries.

Also on Wednesday, supporters of a proposed 2010 ballot initative, the Tax, Regulate, and Control Cannabis Act submitted the measure to the attorney general's office. Spearheaded by Oaksterdam University's Richard Lee, the measure would repeal all state and local laws criminalizing marijuana.

Under California law, the attorney general must provide a ballot summary before supporters can begin gathering signatures. That is only a first step in getting the measure to voters next year. Organizers would then have to gather 443,000 valid signatures to get the measure on the ballot.

It is unclear at this point whether the ballot initiative organizers are planning a serious effort to make the 2010 ballot or if they are just laying down a place marker to keep their options open. In any case, it is increasingly clear that the pot is boiling over in California.

Medical Marijuana: Hawaii Legislature Overrides Veto of Bill to Study Program Problems

The Hawaii legislature Wednesday voted to override Republican Gov. Linda Lingle's veto of a bill that would establish a task force to examine problems and critical issues surrounding the state's medical marijuana law. Legislators voted to enact the bill, SB 1058, by a margin of 25-0 in the Senate and 38-9 in the House.
Volcano National Park, Hawaii Island
Hawaii became the first state to legalize medical marijuana through the legislative process when it passed its law in 2000. But patients and providers have complained over the years about various aspects of the law -- the program's administration by law enforcement instead of health officials, for example -- and have been urging the legislature to take a second look.

Now it will. Under the bill, the task force will:

  • Examine current state statutes, state administrative rules, and all county policies and procedures relating to the medical marijuana program;
  • Examine all issues and obstacles that qualifying patients have encountered with the program;
  • Examine all issue and obstacles that state and county law enforcement agencies have encountered with the program;
  • Compare and contrast Hawaii's program with all other state programs; and
  • Address other issues and perform any other function necessary as the task force deems appropriate, relating to the program.

Medical Marijuana: US House Overturns Barr Amendment, Removes Obstacle to Implementing 1998 DC Vote

The US House of Representatives Thursday passed the District of Columbia appropriations bill and in so doing removed an 11-year-old amendment barring the District from implementing the medical marijuana law approved by voters in 1998. Known as the Barr amendment after then Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), the amendment has been attacked by both medical marijuana and DC home rule advocates for years as an unconscionable intrusion into District affairs.
Bob Barr, lobbied to repeal anti-medical marijuana legislation he wrote
Ironically, Barr, who was defeated in a Republican primary in 2004 in part because of his opposition to medical marijuana, has become an advocate of drug law reform -- including for repeal of his amendment. He has done stints with both the ACLU and the Marijuana Policy Project.

"Today represents a victory not just for medical marijuana patients, but for all city residents who have the right to determine their own policies in their own District without federal meddling," said Aaron Houston, MPP director of government relations. "DC residents overwhelmingly made the sensible, compassionate decision to pass a medical marijuana law, and now, 10 years later, suffering Washingtonians may finally be allowed to focus on treating their pain without fearing arrest."

With Republicans in control of the House until 2006, Congress had reapproved the Barr amendment in every DC appropriations bill until this year. But even under Republican control, pressure had begun to mount after the 2004 death of DC resident Jonathan Magbie, a quadriplegic medical marijuana user who was arrested and died in a DC jail for lack of adequate medical care.

"Had the District been able to implement its medical marijuana law when it passed in 1998, Mr. Magbie may well be alive today -- and free to treat his pain as he and his doctor saw fit," Houston said. "Perhaps now nobody in the District will ever have to suffer as he and his family did simply for using the medicine that works best for them."

How to Win a Marijuana Debate on Television

1. Argue that marijuana should be legal. Being right will give you an immediate advantage. This argument won't guarantee success by itself, but you can't win without it. There has never been a documented instance of someone looking intelligent while arguing that marijuana should be against the law.

2. Try not to say anything completely insane. It's clear that Calvina Fay has come unhinged when she claims that, "about 60% of everybody out there using drugs is involved in abusing children." Such statements will cause viewers to associate your position with derangement. Similar lapses can be observed at other points in the debate when Calvina is speaking.

3. Be the last person to talk. Notice how Rob Kampia concludes the debate with a series of correct statements. Speaking last will help prevent viewers from becoming confused by your opponent's ideas. If the moderator offers your opponent the final word, draw attention away from their comments by transitioning between the following series of facial expressions: surprise → skepticism → amusement.

I Visited Imprisoned Medical Marijuana Patient Will Foster in Jail Last Night

I finally made into the Sonoma County Jail yesterday to visit medical marijuana patient Will Foster, who has been sitting there for the past 16 months first fighting off a bogus marijuana cultivation charge--since dropped by prosecutors--and now fighting off the zealous efforts of Oklahoma parole authorities to return him to the state where he was originally sentenced to a cruel and insane 93 years in prison. I don't want to recount the entire sorry tale--you can read my recent article about his case here--but in a nutshell: Thanks in part to a publicity campaign started by DRCNet, Foster was able to get that horrid original sentence reduced to 20 years, he eventually won release and was paroled to California, which released him from parole after three years of good behavior. That wasn't good enough for Oklahoma, which still wants a few more pounds of flesh. Oklahoma issued a parole violation extradition warrant a few years back, which foster successfully--and unusually--beat with a habeas corpus writ, a California judge throwing out the warrant. So Oklahoma parole officials issued another extradition warrant, this time trying to add new charges after the fact to increase Foster's potential exposure. That warrant is keeping him in jail right now. Foster and his allies are conducting a two-track effort to win his release: First, a political track attempting to get either the California governor or the Oklahoma governor to rescind the extradition warrant. You can help with this. Ed Rosenthal has a Free Will Foster blog post that will show you what actions to take. Second, Foster has prepared another habeas writ. It will have a hearing August 4, and I will attend. He could walk free that day, but he might want to walk fast--Oklahoma is vowing to immediately issue a new extradition warrant. To me, that's a sign of what vengeful, vindictive, authoritarian pricks inhabit the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. But that's just me. There may be a protest at his hearing. Details are sketchy at this point, but if you're in the neighborhood and interested, just email me for now: After 16 months in the slammer, Foster isn't looking so good. He's got big dark circles under his eyes and his skin has that jailhouse pallor. He has long suffered from arthritis, which is what he used marijuana for, and he also suffers from injuries in a car accident a couple of months before he was arrested and jailed. The nice folks at the Sonoma jail have plied him with all sorts of pharmaceuticals, but no pot, of course. Still, Foster remains strong in spirit and firm in his resolve. This guy is a determined fighter, not just for his freedom, but for what is right. Will Foster never hurt a soul. Why years of his life have been taken away from him and his loved ones for growing a plant is beyond me. If you believe in justice, take the time to help him out. Will Foster isn't the only drug war POW, but he is fortunate in the sense that at least some one is paying attention to his plight. Today is Bastille Day. In lieu of mob action to free the prisoners, will you pay some attention to a drug war prisoner you know? Send a letter? Make a visit? Send a check to commisary? Agitate with your elected officials? Something? Let's not forget our imprisoned brothers and sisters!

"The potent smell of marijuana legalization is in the air"

This report from CBS News is a perfect example of how much the debate has changed. The story itself is great (a revealing look into the unimpressive origins of our marijuana laws), but it's the packaging and context that jumped out at me.

(CBS)  This story was written by Charles Cooper and Declan McCullagh as part of a new special report on the evolving debate over marijuana legalization in the U.S. Click here for more of the series, Marijuana Nation: The New War Over Weed

The giant "Marijuana Nation" banner at the top of the page is emblematic of the mainstream media's sudden fascination with marijuana legalization. Unsurprisingly, the story is pulling huge web traffic thanks to, whose visitors love stories about legalizing marijuana.

It took a long time, but the press has finally picked up on the fact that skeptical drug war reporting is extremely popular with the public. That simple concept appears to be reshaping and amplifying the drug policy debate right before our eyes.

New Hampshire Governor Vetoes Medical Marijuana Bill; A Handful of Additional Votes Needed to Override

The House passed the bill 234-138 and the Senate passed it 14-10. If my calculations are correct, that means a successful override needs 14 more votes in the House and 2 more in the Senate. If an override effort is made, it will happen when the legislature returns in September. Until then, it's time to let those legislators know what they need to do. Here is Gov. Lynch's veto message press release in its entirety:
Gov. Lynch’s Veto Message Regarding HB 648 By the authority vested in me, pursuant to part II, article 44 of the New Hampshire Constitution, on July 10, 2009, I vetoed HB 648-FN, an act relative to the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. I have tremendous compassion for people who believe medical marijuana will help alleviate the symptoms of serious illnesses and the side effects of medical treatment. Although opinion of the medical community on the efficacy of medical marijuana remains mixed, I have been open, and remain open, to allowing tightly controlled usage of marijuana for appropriate medical purposes. But in making laws it is not enough to have an idea worthy of consideration, the details of the legislation must also be right. I recognize that the sponsors of this legislation, and the members of the conference committee, worked hard to attempt to address the concerns raised about this legislation. However, after consulting with representatives of the appropriate state agencies and law enforcement officials, I believe this legislation still has too many defects to move forward. Law enforcement officials have raised legitimate public safety concerns regarding the cultivation and distribution of marijuana. These concerns have not been adequately addressed in this bill. Marijuana is an addictive drug that has the potential to pose significant health dangers to its users, and it remains the most widely abused illegal drug in this State. I am concerned about the quantities of the drug made available to patients and caregivers under this bill, particularly because there are different types of marijuana and the potency of marijuana can vary greatly depending on how it is cultivated. I am troubled by the potential for unauthorized redistribution of marijuana from compassion centers. In addition to patients and designated caregivers, an unlimited number of “volunteers” can receive registry cards and receive the full protections afforded under this legislation to authorized cardholders. The provisions made for law enforcement to check on the status of an individual who asserts protection under the proposed law are too narrow. There are also many inconsistencies and structural problems in the legislation that would greatly complicate its administration and would pose barriers to controls aimed at preventing the unauthorized use of marijuana. The bill does not clearly restrict the use of marijuana to those persons who are suffering severe pain, seizures or nausea as a result of a qualifying medical condition. The bill requires compassion centers to hold a license to cultivate and distribute marijuana for medicinal purposes, but the bill does not contain clear provisions regarding a licensing process or standards. Compassion centers can be penalized for distributing amounts of marijuana that exceed permissible limitations, without the compassion centers having the means to know how much marijuana the patient already possesses. Caregivers in some instances are required to control the dosage of marijuana without any real means to accomplish this task. The bill leaves unclear the authority of a landlord to control the use of marijuana on rented property and in common areas of property. While the bill contemplates self-funding, there have been inadequate fiscal studies. The Department of Health and Human Services’ administrative responsibilities are of such a magnitude under this legislation that the fees potentially would be so great as to deny access to anyone but the wealthiest of our citizens, resulting in potential inequities. I understand and empathize with the advocates for allowing medical marijuana use in New Hampshire. However, the fact remains that marijuana use for any purpose remains illegal under federal law. Therefore, if we are to allow its use in New Hampshire for medical purposes, we must ensure that we are implementing the right policy. We cannot set a lower bar for medical marijuana than we do for other controlled substances, and we cannot implement a law that still has serious flaws. Therefore, I am regretfully vetoing HB 648-FN.

I Was Turned Away Again Trying to Visit Medical Marijuana POW Will Foster in Jail Last Night

You remember Will Foster: The Oklahoma arthritis sufferer who was sentenced to 93 years in prison for growing a closetful of pot plants, eventually got his sentence reduced to 20 years, got paroled to California, and finished parole there, but whom neanderthal Oklahoma parole officials want to drag back to that benighted state to extract yet another pound of flesh. Will has been sitting in the Sonoma County Jail for 16 months now after a bogus bust of his legitimate medical marijuana garden. The local charges were eventually dropped, but Foster remains behind bars and deprived of his liberty because of Oklahoma's pending parole violation extradition warrant. The extradition warrant has been signed by the governors of both California and Oklahoma, but either could end this tragedy by rescinding his signature. Those are the two obvious political pressure points. Will has fended off extradition by filing a writ of habeas corpus (he won an earlier one), but that means he stays in jail in California for as long as it takes to resolve that--unless one of those governors acts. I wrote about his plight here. Ed Rosenthal has organized a campaign to Free Will Foster. Go there and do what he asks. So, anyway, I went to see Will last night. It was my second attempt to visit him. I was turned away a few nights ago because I was wearing steel-tipped shoes. Who knew? Well, I didn't see him last night, either. After his girlfriend, Susie Mueller, and I arrived at 7:15 to get in line for the 7:30 sign-in for the visits set for 8:15, then waited before getting in line for the actual 8:15 visit, the whole place went into lockdown. We waited awhile to see if the lockdown would be quickly lifted, but it wasn't, so we left. I'll try again next week. Sheesh, it's starting to feel like it's as hard to break into one of these joints as it is to break out.

Europe: Dutch Cannabis Commission Recommends Making Coffee Shops "Members Only," Legalizing Cultivation for Supply

Holland's famous cannabis coffee shops should become "members only" to serve local communities and prevent "drug tourism," a commission set up to advise the Dutch government recommended last week. It also suggested the country experiment with legalizing the supply of cannabis to those coffee shops.
The Bulldog coffee shop, Amsterdam
"Coffee shops should again become what they were originally meant to be: vending points for local users and not large-scale suppliers to consumers from neighboring countries," said the body. "In some aspects, the situation has gotten out of hand," it added.

The retail sale of cannabis through licensed coffee shops has been tolerated -- though technically still illegal -- since 1976. There are currently some 700 coffee shops, each of which can keep 500 grams of cannabis on hand. While popular, the coffee shop system has come under increasing pressure, with critics citing the aforementioned drug tourism, as well as the development of organized crime links in the cannabis trade.

The "members only" policy is already set to go into effect in the border province of Limburg, and two other border councils, Roosendaal and Bergen-op-Zoom, responded to drug tourism by simply closing all their coffee shops last fall.

Under the Dutch system, while the sale of cannabis is permitted, its production to supply the tolerated coffee shop market is not, leading to the "backdoor problem," where coffee shops are forced to deal with illegal growers and traffickers. The commission recommended experimenting with legalizing the supply chain for the coffee shops in a bid to solve the backdoor problem.

The commission's report will form the basis for a government reevaluation of drug policy, which is due to be presented to parliament in September, Justice Ministry spokesman Wim van der Weegen told Agence France-Presse.

But at least one influential Dutch newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, said the commission's proposals are untenable. In an editorial last Friday, the newspaper argued that as a member of the European Union, Holland can neither exclude foreigners from the coffee shops nor legalize cannabis production for commercial purposes. The solutions to Holland's "drug problem" lie not in the Hague, but in Brussels, the editorial said.

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