Paul Nitze: Amendment 20 isn’t the answer |

Paul Nitze: Amendment 20 isn’t the answer

Paul Nitze
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

On Nov. 5, an Aspen truck driver named James Wingers took a plea deal in a marijuana trafficking case that will land him between five and 40 years in federal prison. He had moved several hundred kilos of marijuana by truck across the country.

A few days earlier, the state board of health significantly curtailed who can dispense pot under the state medical marijuana law, also known as Amendment 20. That decision is now tied up in the Denver courts.

What’s the connection? Not necessarily what you think. Those fighting for a broad interpretation of Amendment 20 see it as a beachhead in a larger battle for legalization. Allow dispensaries to flourish, get states and localities used to taxing them, and eventually guys like James Wingers won’t do prison time no matter how much pot they move. So the thinking goes.

Call me a contrarian, but I have a feeling that the extremely weird state of play in Colorado’s marijuana law(s) will not turn out well for the medical marijuana community.

And that’s because supporters have tied their flag to the mast of Amendment 20. If the goal is putting marijuana in the hands of those with chronic pain and other treatable conditions, that law is a sham.

Lots of Coloradoans oppose legalization except for those with a legitimate claim to medical use. But the median voter seems to want more than that, including the legalization of small amounts and maybe even government control of sales and distribution. As always, the politics of this are fraught, and the norm seems to be for Democrats and moderate Republicans to take steps in that direction while downplaying talk of full legalization.

But if you think the politicians are hypocrites, you should hear the doubletalk coming from the medical marijuana community. They’re up in arms that the state health board has ruled that caregivers must provide actual care in addition to dispensing pot.

When medical marijuana supporters pushed the referendum 10 years ago, they made their case by pulling on the heartstrings of voters. In particular, they publicized individual cases, people hobbled by pain who had found some relief through smoking marijuana. But the actual language of the referendum was vague and lacking guidance on any number of important questions. Those who backed the measure are now, to a large extent, stuck with the results of their handiwork.

What they either ignore or talk around is the fact that the current state play is a far cry from the pitch they made to voters back in 2000. Colorado now has more than 11,000 registered medical marijuana users, most of whom cannot make any legitimate claim to suffer from a debilitating condition.

A huge number of those who’ve gotten cards recently are young people who want to use marijuana recreationally under legal cover. More than half the prescriptions written for medical use come from about a dozen doctors. A third of the prescriptions come from two busy, well-paid doctors. Nearly every week in court I meet a healthy defendant who shows me his medical marijuana card.

How about the notion that Amendment 20 would bring marijuana out of the black market and under government regulation? Hasn’t worked out that way. Rather than a legitimate market, we’ve simply created a different black market.

Dispensaries are for-profit businesses that compete with each other. They are subject to the same economic forces as any other business. So what makes dispensaries thrive? High-volume sales and low-cost product. That means that dispensaries are rife with kickback schemes designed to increase the number of plants (capped at six per patient) they can grow. And there’s a huge incentive to simply buy product from out of state or out of country, because the source of their pot can’t easily be traced.

The longer those who support legalization stand behind Amendment 20 in its current form, the more alienated the average Colorado voter will become. Which is why I agree with those calling for a pause on two fronts: taxation of dispensaries and approval of new dispensary licenses.

State Sen. Chris Romer and other state legislators are currently working on legislation to reform Amendment 20 and bring it closer to its professed goals of putting pot in the hands of those in pain and keeping it out of the hands of recreational users. That bill should come up for a vote this session, and will likely clarify dozens of questions left open by Amendment 20, such as how the law interfaces with the probation system and family services.

Those who want to tax dispensaries want to get local government hooked on the revenues so that legalization will stick. But an approach to legalization that consistently uses the back door to advance policy goals and is fundamentally incoherent is never going to sit right with voters.

Some of those voters support out and out legalization no matter the amount. You only get to a majority if you include those, myself included, who have no doubt that marijuana is harmful (and a far more potent drug than it used to be), but who have serious reservations about spending our police and prison dollars enforcing anti-marijuana laws. Keeping those people on board means taking the issue head on, as the town of Breckenridge did earlier this month, not advocating for a sham medical marijuana law.

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