California police chief: Makes sure pot laws are clear
November 22, 2009
DENVER – The top cop in a California town that has become a poster child for a well-intentioned medical-marijuana law gone wrong has some advice for Colorado legislators.”Make your laws as clear as you can, so that your executive and judicial branches of government can do their jobs as they are intended to,” said Randy Mendosa, chief of police in Arcata, Calif.The northern California town of 17,000 drew national attention in 2008 when a boom in medical-marijuana growing spawned serious public-safety concerns and siphoned away affordable housing as homes were rented for pot cultivation operations.Colorado has few regulations for the burgeoning medical-marijuana industry, which has forced befuddled municipalities to enact a patchwork of moratoriums and outright bans as they wait for lawmakers to take up the issue in January.Police say medical marijuana is among the most confusing issues they deal with.Approved by Colorado voters in 2000, medical marijuana may legally be used by people who suffer from eight specific debilitating conditions. But possession and consumption of the drug remains illegal under federal law. Making the issue even murkier is a U.S. Department of Justice order last month that prosecutors not pursue cases against medical-marijuana users and growers, so long as they are complying with state law.State Sen. Chris Romer plans to introduce legislation to clarify Colorado’s medical-marijuana law in the upcoming session.”I’m a believer that we need to go to a regulatory model,” said Romer, D-Denver. “I know there are those who would argue it is too complex. But we figured out how to do it with Oxycontin, we can do it with marijuana.”Those who grow and sell the plant want to be involved in the discussions, said Josh Stanley, owner of medical-marijuana dispensary Peace in Medicine.”We understand regulation is coming, and we want to be part of that,” said Stanley, who heads Colorado Patients & Providers Coalition, a group of dispensary owners that will lobby for regulations palatable to the industry.Romer doesn’t want to smother an industry that provides relief for many, he said.But patients and growers worry that regulatory efforts could choke off access to medicine and chase legitimate business people out of the field.It is a complex business, and things aren’t always as they seem, said Warren Edson, a lawyer who represents dispensaries.Edson’s clients aren’t opposed to sensible zoning regulations to keep dispensaries an appropriate distance from schools, he said.Nor do they object to regulations that would bar grow operations from residential neighborhoods, as long as similar businesses are kept out, Edson said.But what about someone who has cancer and grows his or her own medicine, he wonders. Rules that don’t take that into account could prevent that person from nurturing the plants they need to stay pain-free.Safety and other issues surrounding grow houses have bedeviled Arcata, said Mendosa, the California town’s chief.There were fires in homes where grow lights, fans and other electrical equipment overloaded electrical systems never meant for commercial use, he said.In many cases, landlords weren’t aware that their renters were operating pot farms. The city is working with Pacific Gas and Electric to eliminate the delivery of unsafe levels of power to residential units, Mendosa said.”The growing of marijuana in residential neighborhoods has been very problematic,” he said.Growers are able to pay far more for homes and rentals than locals, driving up prices and causing a housing shortage, Mendosa said.And there have been numerous home invasion robberies in Arcata, Mendosa said.”Marijuana sells on the street for probably $3,000-plus a pound, so people will steal it,” he said. “I don’t think anybody wants to live next to a grow house because you don’t want kids playing in the yard when thugs come to rob it.”In Denver in the past two months, there have been at least two home invasions at residential grow operations in which guns were used.Edson said Colorado doesn’t need new laws, just enforcement of those already on the books. Zoning laws can be used to ensure dispensaries aren’t near schools and that buildings have to comply with codes that don’t allow electrical systems incapable of handling the power needed.Owners like Stanley are aware of safety issues and run secure operations in buildings that meet code.Edson and others fear that the state will place too many hurdles in the path of growers and dispensaries and drive many of them out of business.”You can close them down, but it won’t affect the patient numbers.”If doctors aren’t following proper standards of care in recommending marijuana for patients they should get in trouble, Edson said.But that won’t eliminate the need for medical marijuana.If dispensaries can’t get enough legal marijuana to supply demand, some grow operations could move into private homes where they would be a danger. And many patients will have to go to black-market dealers for medicine, Edson said.”You are going to see an influx of people going to the black market and you are going to see it grown in people’s closets and you are going to see safety hazards,” Stanley said.