Pitkin County pursues licensing for medical marijuana

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Pitkin County will delve into the licensing of medical marijuana businesses within unincorporated areas of the county, commissioners informally decided Tuesday after a discussion with two representatives of the state’s Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division.

Whether the county adopts any regulations related to the industry or simply licenses the establishments and relies on state rules remains to be seen, but at least one commissioner believes the county should consider limiting the number of businesses that are licensed to grow medical marijuana, sell it or manufacture products that contain medicinal pot.

“If we’re going to allow the licenses, we need to limit this,” said Commissioner George Newman. Neighborhood caucuses in the midvalley have made it clear that they don’t want any more of the businesses than currently exist, he noted.

He also voiced concerns about potential abuses that put marijuana in the hands of youths.

But Commissioner Rachel Richards cautioned against turning a license into a “gold medallion” – creating great value in a medical marijuana business license because few of them are available.

The state of Colorado is in the process of licensing medical marijuana businesses but won’t issue a license to a business unless the local jurisdiction does as well, according to Brian Dyet, senior investigator for the state enforcement division in western Colorado.

“We’re not going to issue a state medical marijuana license unless Pitkin County does,” he said.

County commissioners previously had decided to do nothing with regard to the industry, letting only the state rules apply, but given the prospect that existing businesses would be denied a state license without some local action, all five elected officials agreed to direct the county staff to come up with a licensing procedure.

“I’m feeling very comfortable about licensing,” said Commissioner Jack Hatfield, who visited a grow facility and a dispensary to see firsthand how they operate within the evolving regulatory framework the state established.

“We need to step up as a board and get this done and get this done right,” Hatfield said.

“We do need to find a way to make this work,” agreed Commissioner Rob Ittner. “I do think there are tremendous benefits to medical marijuana.”

Ittner said the county should ensure that the general public, as well as those in the industry, are protected by the regulations imposed on the businesses. Commissioners asked staffers to look at how the city of Aspen and other counties regulate medical marijuana.

Most of the local dispensaries are within the city of Aspen, but 10 businesses – mostly grow sites – are believed to be in operation in unincorporated Pitkin County. That’s how many stepped forward when the state required the businesses to submit a license application in 2010. A state moratorium, scheduled to expire July 1, currently prevents any additional applicants from opening up shop.

Roughly a dozen representatives of the medical marijuana industry attended Tuesday’s session, but few chose to speak. One Aspen dispensary operator praised the commissioners’ “positive attitude” toward the licensing issue.

“I hope that you find a way to permit these businesses to exist and thrive in your community,” said local attorney Lauren Maytin, who represents various medical marijuana businesses in the Roaring Fork Valley.

The discussion focused only briefly on federal law, under which the possession, use and sale of marijuana remains illegal. Federal prohibitions conflict with state laws in Colorado and other states that have legalized medical marijuana. Federal law led commissioners to previously reject proposed regulation of the industry in Pitkin County.

“We don’t know what they’re going to do,” said Lewis Koski of the state enforcement division regarding federal authorities. “They’re going to make the choices that they’re going to make in this process.

“We’re continuing full steam ahead with the state law,” he said.