EAGLE COUNTY, Colo. - Vail-area medical marijuana dispensaries that have enjoyed relatively drama-free business operations could be in for some changes if Colorado's governor signs a new state law soon.
If Gov. Bill Ritter signs House Bill 10-1284, which local attorneys expect him to do, the medical marijuana debate will be far from over. The bill would create a state medical marijuana licensing authority, similar to the state liquor authority, that would allow for local regulation of dispensaries through zoning and licensing laws.
The bill, once signed, also allows local jurisdictions to prohibit dispensaries - something the Vail Town Council voted to do Tuesday.
The town of Avon is the next local jurisdiction to take up the matter. Avon passed a moratorium in January, just like the town of Vail did, in order to wait for the Colorado General Assembly to pass state regulations on the medical marijuana industry. The moratorium means dispensaries have not been able to open within those towns.
Avon's town attorney, police chief and director of community development, among others, are scheduled to meet next week to discuss a recommendation to make to the Avon Town Council, said Jaime Walker, town spokeswoman.
"We will be bringing the issue back in front of the council on June 22," Walker said.
Eagle County, which has allowed dispensaries in specific zoning districts, will also be revisiting the matter as soon as Ritter signs the bill, said Eagle County Attorney Bryan Treu.
Treu said the county commissioners haven't had a conversation yet on whether banning dispensaries is something they want to consider because a ban hadn't been allowed under state law.
"We're going to wait (to discuss it) until the bill gets signed," Treu said. "When that happens, we'll probably schedule something within a month."
If Eagle County decides to allow dispensaries, Treu said, the county would have to then decide how it would allow them to operate. The state's regulations, which aren't expected to be completed until July of 2011, would help guide local regulations, Treu said.
"Counties can make regulations more or less restrictive than the state's," Treu said.
Local dispensary operators are paying close attention to the new state law, which has some pros and cons for the industry as a whole, said Nick Tanem, manager at the Tree Line Premier Dispensary in Eagle-Vail.
Tanem is by no means an advocate for the new law, but said it could be good for patients if lawmakers "do it right."
Tanem thinks parts of the law that mandate commercial growing rather than at-home grow operations could be good because it encourages quality marijuana. Tanem and other managers at Tree Line already regulate the marijuana coming into their shop, going as far as examining buds under microscopes to ensure there's no mold or other harmful substances, Tanem said.
John Guarisco, who helps run the New Hope Wellness Center dispensary in Edwards, said regulations that allow the state to inspect the quality of a dispensary's marijuana are fine when done by those who know what they're doing, such as health department officials, but shouldn't be regulated by town governments who might not know the facts about medical marijuana.
"It's dangerous putting (regulations) in the hands of people who know nothing about it," Guarisco said.
The new law would give dispensary owners little power to fight back if local governments decide to ban the businesses, Guarisco said.
"As soon as the governor signs that bill, they have the power to ban it," Guarisco said.
Guarisco and Tanem agree that banning dispensaries locally would have huge consequences for local communities - they say illegal drug dealers pounce on communities without competition from dispensaries. Those drug dealers are also peddling things like cocaine and other hard drugs, Guarisco said.
"You'll never see (hard drugs) in our dispensary," Guarisco said.
Guarisco said dispensaries are the best thing that has happened to the state of Colorado because they have put illegal drug dealers out of business.
"If you're trying to keep tabs on drug dealers, what's a better place to have them than a place that can be inspected by the state," Guarisco said.
The illegal dealers are responsible for marijuana's reputation as a gateway drug, and they'll target communities where dispensaries have been banned, Guarisco said. They're the people lacing marijuana with dangerous chemicals and other drugs like phencyclidine (PCP) and cocaine, he said.
The lack of quality and lack of safety in marijuana sold by illegal drug dealers is just one of the reasons dispensary operators are scared of being banished.
"We don't want it to go back to patients having to buy their medicine from drug dealers in the street," Tanem said.
Guarisco wrote up a flier and brought it to local dispensaries so they can share information with their patients. The flier warns patients that the new state law could mean no more local dispensaries.
"This would be a tremendous loss to the community, and a gain for drug dealers," the flier reads. "This county will be a prime target to sell drugs."
Guarisco and Tanem are passionate about the medicinal qualities of marijuana and are passionate about helping their patients, they said. Medical marijuana eliminates pain and helps patients suffering from diseases like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and cancer, to name a few, Guarisco said.
"I'd love to keep my business doors open and continue to help people," Guarisco said.