Election to determine future of Fort Collins medical marijuana businesses

The long-simmering debate about medical marijuana in Fort Collins is coming to a boil with the Nov. 1 election.  Voters will consider ballot Question 300, which would ban licensed medical marijuana businesses from the city, including dispensaries, grow operations and makers of marijuana-infused products.  If the measure passes, the city’s 20 medical marijuana businesses would have to shut down within 90 days of the city clerk certifying the election results.  Both sides of the debate say the issue isn’t the legitimacy of using marijuana to provide relief from severe pain and other debilitating conditions but rather how the medicine is delivered to patients.

Proponents of the measure say the presence of medical marijuana, or MMJ, businesses in the city has been harmful to the community by expanding the availability of marijuana for recreational users, including students high-school aged and younger.  “We all want the best thing for our city,” said Bob Powell of Concerned Fort Collins Citizens, which put the measure on the ballot through a petition drive. “But now we have this reputation for having a lot of marijuana.  “How can it be a good thing that we have people coming here to rob dispensaries and grow marijuana illegally because they believe this is a safe place to do that? How can that be good for our community?”  Local dispensary owners and others who oppose a ban on dispensaries say a ban would harm patients’ ability to access medicine.

Without licensed MMJ centers, patients would have to go to the black market for marijuana or seek out caregivers who grow in their homes, said Dave Schwaab, co-owner of Abundant Healing, 351 Linden St.  Centers are heavily regulated under state law and are required to track what happens to the marijuana they grow “from seed to sale.” Patients know what they are getting and don’t have to take chances with their medicine, Schwaab said.  “You can go through a licensed, secure, monitored and regulated dispensary or through unregulated and unsecured homes in neighborhoods,” he said. “I think it’s preferable to go through centers.”  Public safety is not threatened by the presence of centers, he said.

A recent study by Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, found that crime rates increase in neighborhoods when marijuana dispensaries are closed compared to areas where shops are open.  The Fort Collins proposal is hitting the ballot after two years of controversy during which hundreds of medical marijuana, or MMJ, shops sprouted up across Colorado and state and local officials scrambled to figure out how to regulate them.  Colorado voters approved the use of medical marijuana to treat certain debilitating conditions through an amendment to the state Constitution in 2000.  Designated caregivers could provide marijuana to patients who could not grow their own.

The dispensary model for providing medical marijuana emerged after federal officials indicated in 2009 that they would not prosecute users in states where it is permitted even though the production, sale and possession of marijuana violates federal law.  State legislators reacted to the mushrooming MMJ industry by crafting strict regulations for the licensing and operation of dispensaries. Legislative actions included establishing the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division of the Department of Revenue.  Fort Collins officials responded by establishing city regulations that align with or are stricter than state rules. With the exception of businesses that were “grandfathered” into the city’s system, MMJ businesses are restricted to commercial areas and cannot be located within specific distances of schools and other facilities.

Loveland, Greeley and Windsor banned MMJ businesses, as is allowed under state law. Those decisions have made Fort Collins the epicenter for marijuana production and sales in Northern Colorado, critics say.  The dispensary model is not what voters had in mind when they approved the use of medical marijuana, Powell said. Dispensaries led to the number of MMJ patients registered with the state to jump from 5,000 to 135,000 in a couple of years.  Larimer County has about 8,200 medical marijuana patients, according to state records.  The influx shows the system is being abused by recreational users, Powell said, to the detriment of legitimate patients. If dispensaries are banned, patients would still be able to access marijuana through licensed caregivers.

“The dispensary system is a joke; it’s a charade,” he said.  Drug-related incidents and suspension in Poudre School District increased 300 percent since 2008, officials say. Critics say the increase is linked to the presence of dispensaries and the availability of marijuana.  Marijuana was available illegally to high school students for many years before dispensaries appeared, Schwaab said. Students also abuse other intoxicants, including alcohol and prescription medications sometimes stolen from their parents.  “We have a problem with painkillers and any drug that can provide euphoria — that includes alcohol,” he said. “That it’s getting worse for marijuana, I don’t think can be blamed on medical marijuana centers. I think it’s a society problem in general.”

via : Coloradoan

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