Legalizing pot: What if it’s not just medicine?

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
AP fileColorado's Amendment 64 could be a game changer for those in the business of selling medical marijuana in Aspen and around the state.

ASPEN – While Colorado voters mull the outright legalization of marijuana when they head to the polls next week, some local business owners are taking a particularly keen interest in the ramifications of Amendment 64.

They’re already selling marijuana of the medical variety. Amendment 64, which would let adults possess limited quantities of pot and buy it from state-regulated outlets, could be a game changer in many respects.

“I don’t really know what’s going to happen. I don’t think anybody does,” said Jordan Lewis, owner of Silverpeak Apothecary in downtown Aspen.

Lewis’ dispensary was among a number of such establishments that opened in Aspen and around the Roaring Fork Valley during a medical marijuana boom in 2009. Since then, some shops have closed, and those that remain continue to work through the regulatory hurdles spawned by the burgeoning industry.

“I could not have imagined how much work it would be to get this far,” Lewis said. “It has not been easy.”

Today, medical marijuana operators might be in the best position to sell what’s been dubbed recreational pot if Amendment 64 passes. They have the required security measures in place, they’re licensed or in the process of becoming so (an effort that includes criminal background checks), and they’ve either arranged suppliers to grow the plants or taken that on, as well, complying with yet another set of regulations.

Amendment 64 would give medical marijuana purveyors a break on the license application fee if they choose to move into the recreational marijuana business, as they’ve already paid once, but the enterprises must be completely separate. A medical dispensary cannot sell pot to anyone who’s not a registered marijuana patient, nor can it purchase marijuana from a source that isn’t authorized under the state’s medical marijuana code. Medical and recreational marijuana could not be sold under the same roof.

However, medical marijuana sales would be exempt from the excise tax of as much as 15 percent that would be imposed on recreational marijuana – a cost pot shops would logically pass on to consumers. The amendment requires the first $40 million in revenues raised annually to go into a public school construction-assistance fund.

Opponents of the marijuana measure, as well as some in the medical pot industry who philosophically support the legalization move, wonder if the state will face even closer federal scrutiny if Amendment 64 passes.

“I’m afraid, because it’s still against federal law, that we’d only be asking for trouble,” said one area dispensary owner, who asked not be identified.

Another declined to comment on 64 at all.

While Colorado dispensaries that operated within 1,000 feet of a school were directed by the feds to shut down, there has been no heavy-handed crackdown on the industry as a whole in Colorado.

Lauren Maytin, an Aspen defense attorney who advocates legalization of pot for adults and represents a number of clients on the medical side of the business in the Roaring Fork Valley and around the state, said she believes medical marijuana will have a place even if Amendment 64 passes.

For one thing, registered patients have not been a target of federal drug agents, she noted.

“I personally think that a medical patient is better off remaining a medical patient any way you cut it,” Maytin said. “We’ve really seen a largely hands-off approach for patients.”

If pot is readily accessible at state-sanctioned stores, though, some purveyors of medical marijuana wonder if a viable niche market for their goods will continue to exist. They’re wondering whether they should stay the course if 64 passes or switch to selling recreational marijuana. The latter, however, might garner a harsher level of scrutiny and greater threat of arrest and prosecution because the possession and sale of pot remain federal crimes.

Maytin said many of her clients aren’t sure where they stand in the Amendment 64 debate as a result.

Having already jumped through the hoops of getting established, though, expanding under 64 is an attractive option, said the dispensary owner who asked not to be named.

“If it did go through, we would definitely be in the right place at the right time,” he said.

Lewis is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“What’s going to happen if it does pass is a wild card,” he said. “It could help my business. It could destroy my business.”

What it won’t do is put pot shops on every corner the day after the Nov. 6 election.

The amendment calls for the adoption of state regulations for the recreational marijuana industry by July 1 2013. The Legislature is to enact the excise tax and plan for its collection by Jan. 1, 2017.

“It’s not going to be, ‘Oh my God – we have a new business.’ It’s going to be, ‘Oh my God – we have a new business to regulate,'” Maytin said.

Proponents compare the legalization of marijuana to the end of Prohibition. On a nationwide level, such a move would bring an end to the black-market pot industry, persecution of users and the spending of millions on at least one segment of the drug war. Allowing the cultivation of hemp, a less potent form of the plant that has manufacturing uses ranging from fabrics to soap, could prove an agricultural boon, they further argue. Amendment 64 allows for the growing of hemp.

Opponents don’t want Colorado to be the first to flout federal drug laws or to gain a reputation as the place to get high with something other than elevation. It could have company, though; Oregon and Washington both have legalization measures on the ballot, as well.

Others have voiced fears that Amendment 64 will ultimately make pot more accessible to underage consumers, though buyers must be at least 21 years old, and sales would be regulated. Individuals would have to show proof of their age to make a purchase, and the amendment’s language makes it clear that providing marijuana to an underage person is illegal.

Lewis said he supports Amendment 64 for all of the pro-legalization arguments despite the uncertainties it poses for his dispensary.

“My business might go down the drain, but I’m still going to vote for it,” he said.