Marijuana

Marijuana Regulation Is Largely an Illusion in Denver Too, but So What?

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Jacob Sullum

The Justice Department's crackdown on medical marijuana has been notably less heavy-handed in Colorado than in other states. While the feds have shut down hundreds of dispensaries in California and continue to target businesses that supply cannabis to patients in Washington, John Walsh, the U.S. attorney for Colorado, has contented himself with sending threatening letters to 50 or so medical marijuana centers he deemed too close to schools. Hundreds of others continue to operate, unthreatened, unraided, and unseized. The usual explanation for this striking difference can be summed up in one word: regulation. While neither California nor Washington explicitly allows dispensaries, which operate in a legal gray area unregulated by the state, since 2010 Colorado has licensed them, laying out specific, picayune, and often cumbersome rules for their operation. But as a state audit released last March showed, Colorado's vaunted regulatory system is largely an illusion, strict in theory but unenforced in practice. A recent audit of marijuana oversight in Denver, which is home to more cannabis operations than the rest of the state combined and was regulating the industry before the state did, found something similar.

According to the report, which was released last week by Denver Auditor Dennis Gallagher, the city's Department of Excise and Licenses "does not have a basic control framework in place for effective governance of the City's medical marijuana program." Here are the audit's highlights:

1. The City's medical marijuana records and data are incomplete, inaccurate, and at times inaccessible.

2. The Department lacks formal policies and procedures to govern the medical marijuana business licensure process.

3. The coordination between the City and the state for dual medical marijuana licensure has been poor.

4. Deadlines are either not established or not enforced for key steps in the medical marijuana licensure process.

5. The medical marijuana licensure process lacks management oversight, adequate staffing, and proper segregation of duties.

6. The medical marijuana licensure fee was established arbitrarily.

7. Key information has not been kept up-to-date as medical marijuana policies have evolved.

The Department's lack of follow-up on license applications, and in conjunction with State law, has allowed some medical marijuana businesses to operate in the City without a valid City license. Further, the Department does not know how many medical marijuana businesses are operating in Denver. Since recreational marijuana will be legal in the state effective January 2014 as a result of Amendment 64, it is critical that the City develop and implement a robust system for regulating marijuana-related businesses before the current problems are exacerbated by a new surge of recreational marijuana license applications. 

Opponents of legalization have latched onto the audit as further evidence that approving Amendment 64 was a huge mistake and that implementing it will be a disaster. But to me the real lesson here is that Colorado seems to be doing OK despite more than a decade of tolerating a legal marijuana industry, an industry that was officially unregulated for most of that time and to a large extent remains unregulated in practice. NORML's Paul Armentano makes this point in a recent interview with The Verge (even while regretting that the government so far has not delivered the regulation it promised). "We've been told that the reason we can't change [marijuana policy] is because if we do, the sky will fall," Armentano says. "The sky is not falling in Colorado. People that live in Colorado recognize that, and people outside of Colorado will recognize that as well."

[Thanks to Richard Cowan for the tip.]

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  1. which operate in a legal gray area unregulated by the state,

    I love how untrammelled freedom is now a “legal gray area”.

    That which is not mandatory is prohibited, eh, comrades?

    1. They hate us for our freedoms.

  2. If you want unregulated marijuana shops, why don’t you move to SOMALIA?!

    /Derpgressive

  3. Unregulated by the state …. holy grail, anyone?

    1. Eh. I’m going to hate it when Focus on Family runs a “false flag” operation and sprays Raid over a bunch of weed before selling it to some retail shop.

      /paranoid

  4. “The sky is not falling in Colorado. People that live in Colorado recognize that, and people outside of Colorado will recognize that as well.”

    That’s just what I’d expect someone to say who is desperately trying to cover up that the sky is, in fact, falling in Colorado. You can’t fool me, druggie!

  5. 1. The City’s medical marijuana records and data are incomplete, inaccurate, and at times inaccessible.

    2. The Department lacks formal policies and procedures to govern the medical marijuana business licensure process.

    3. The coordination between the City and the state for dual medical marijuana licensure has been poor.

    4. Deadlines are either not established or not enforced for key steps in the medical marijuana licensure process.

    5. The medical marijuana licensure process lacks management oversight, adequate staffing, and proper segregation of duties.

    6. The medical marijuana licensure fee was established arbitrarily.

    7. Key information has not been kept up-to-date as medical marijuana policies have evolved.

    FIFY. And this is just as true.

  6. And because of these ineffective regulations, Colorado is just awash in reefer madness, right? Children running around stabbing old ladies in the legs, gangsters running illegal homeless person fight clubs, and wild packs of vicious stray dogs high on cannabis roaming the streets devouring babies.

    1. That wasn’t the before legalization picture?

  7. …it is critical that the City develop and implement a robust system for regulating marijuana-related businesses before the current problems are exacerbated by a new surge of recreational marijuana license applications.

    CRITICAL.

    1. Other than the bureaucracy is being ignored en masse, what, exactly, are these “problems” they are referring to?

      1. Other than the bureaucracy is being ignored en masse, what, exactly, are these “problems” they are referring to?

        Yes. Next question.

  8. The zeal to regulate in WA also seems to be…lacking. It’s now legal, but the State Liquor Board is really taking its time in coming up with regulations, and people just smoke out in the open now, and go illegally buy their weed from a grower or dealer just like they did before possession was legal. And the cops care even less.

    Of course, the feds just hit some medical mj dispensaries, so they obviously still care. The obsession over a plant is just beyond any comprehension.

    1. The obsession over a plant victimless crimes is just beyond any comprehension.
      FIFY

    2. The obsession over a plant is just beyond any comprehension.

      It drives them crazy when people just ignore their dictates.

  9. You know what else is an illusion? Alt-text…

  10. But as a state audit released last March showed, Colorado’s vaunted regulatory system is largely an illusion, strict in theory but unenforced in practice.

    In other word, “ideal.”

    1. No.

      Because at any point some bureaucrat with a stick up his or her ass can start to enforce these regulations, or any subset of them.

      Ideal is virtually no regulations.

  11. These regulations are like a vaccination against something more heavy-handed.

    A small dose of cowpox prevents the onset of the full-blown disease later in life.

    Brilliant!

  12. So you’re saying legalization means insanely draconian regulation. OK.

    Maybe you should look up what words mean.

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