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The state of Colorado is adopting strict regulations and a new enforcement agency to crack down on non-compliant medical marijuana dispensaries.
The state of Colorado is adopting strict regulations and a new enforcement agency to crack down on non-compliant medical marijuana dispensaries. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Medical marijuana has been legal in Colorado since 2000, and for much of the last decade, providers of the drug have been able to operate more or less without direct state regulation.
But in 2009, the state's medical marijuana industry took a turn. The U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would no longer prioritize prosecuting individuals who comply with state medical marijuana laws.
That same year, the Colorado State Health Board passed a rule making it possible for individual providers to supply marijuana to more than five registered patients.
"Those two things put together led a lot of people to say, 'hey, now I'm safe to open up a storefront,'" Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee tells NPR's Neal Conan.
The subsequent growth in medial marijuana centers was dramatic, Verlee says, jumping from less than 12 in early 2009 to more than 800 in mid-2011. The facilities run from what some might call "the recreational culture ... to the high end side ... trying to look like health spas and organic food stores."
The industry's rapid growth made both medical marijuana critics, and the state government, nervous, Verlee says. "After seeing what was going on for six months or so of marijuana stores opening up everywhere, [the state] stepped in and started regulating."
Colorado's new medical marijuana enforcement agency launches Friday, along with rules codifying the allowed sales volume per facility, the allowed sales per patient, and other regulations and enforcement mechanisms.
Paul Schmidt is an agent in charge of medical marijuana enforcement for the Colorado Department of Revenue. He says he has no problem with the appropriate use of medical marijuana, but that those who game the system are creating a problem for the state.
For "individuals that are in a chronic need, whether it be cancer, whether it be pain, whether it be a terminal illness, there should be an application for it," he tells Conan. "Unfortunately ... it's the abuse of the system that gets out of control."
Too many doctors are tempted by the money they can make providing referrals to patients, Schmidt says. "If you can simply walk into any doctor's office and say, 'I have a chronic pain,' ... it leads to one of the biggest problems," according to Schmidt: perfectly healthy individuals who are then able to legally purchase medical pot.
Whether or not Colorado has a problem with fraudulent users "depends on who you ask," Verlee says. "There are certainly folks who say that everybody with a patient card should have one."
But there are signs that a percentage of registered users in Colorado may not have an actual need for the drug. "There are a lot of people who point out that the medical marijuana industry in the state is overwhelmingly young and male," Verlee says, which tracks with statistics for recreational users.
And the vast majority of users list pain as their ailment, she says. "Of the allowed conditions, it's the only one for which there is not a very clear [medical] test."
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia currently allow marijuana consumption for medical purposes. Authorities in several of those states are watching Colorado's experience — and its new enforcement agency — closely.
Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved a voter referendum legalizing medical marijuana use in 2008. But the law has been interpreted very differently by different counties, Michigan Radio's Sarah Cwiek tells Conan, leaving courts and local law enforcement agencies across the state without clear guidance on how to manage the industry.
"It's driving the cops absolutely crazy," Cwiek says. Police officers complain that they don't have access to the list of authorized patients and caregivers [suppliers]. When attempting to verify if someone is legally using or selling the drug, Cwiek says, "there's no way for them to see if that person is registered as a patient or a caregiver."
Agent Schmidt says Colorado's new regulations will make his job, and that of the courts and police, much easier. "It really takes a lot of the gray and ambiguity away ... of actually regulating."
Schmidt says it's time for law enforcement agencies around the country to recognize the legalization of medical marijuana use is likely to spread. "It's definitely not time to put our heads in the sand ... It's here, it's something we have to deal with ... We have to educate not only the public, but ourselves."