Pot Dispensaries Pop Up In Colorado

Pierre Werner of DrReefer.com recently protested Colorado public health department meeting. i i

Pierre Werner of DrReefer.com recently protested a meeting at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The agency had planned to require vendors like Werner to do more than just sell pot to patients. Jeff Brady/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady/NPR
Pierre Werner of DrReefer.com recently protested Colorado public health department meeting.

Pierre Werner of DrReefer.com recently protested a meeting at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The agency had planned to require vendors like Werner to do more than just sell pot to patients.

Jeff Brady/NPR

The number of businesses that sell marijuana has increased greatly in Colorado, where use of pot for medical reasons has been allowed since 2000. A mix of confusing regulations and court rulings had kept its distribution in check — until earlier this year. Now pot stores are showing up in many neighborhoods — and there are calls for more regulation.

A Lack Of Regulations

Just outside downtown Denver, in a neighborhood that has become known as Little Amsterdam, there's a cluster of three marijuana dispensaries. Pierre Werner moved there from Las Vegas to open one called DrReefer.com.

"The laws here in Colorado are a lot more liberal than in conservative Nevada," Werner says. "The state of Colorado gave me a business license and told me to pay my taxes. The state of Nevada put me in prison."

Werner says he has three felony convictions for selling marijuana. But in Colorado, there is no regulation against felons opening a dispensary.

There was one problem for Werner, though: His store in Little Amsterdam was near a church and a school. There are no rules against that, either, but he didn't want to upset the neighbors. So he moved his business to a spot that could be even more lucrative — right across the street from the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Werner says the lack of regulations encouraged him to open shop. And he says the White House helped move things along.

"Thanks to President Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for getting the feds off our back and allowing the states to implement their laws," Werner says.

The Obama administration has said that busting medical marijuana operations will be low on its priority list.

Status Quo Gives Way To Heated Debate

Nobody knows how many dispensaries there are in Colorado; the best guess is about 150. In the past nine years, there have been efforts to regulate Colorado's medical marijuana industry. The state health department wanted to limit the number of patients using medical pot that a vendor could supply. And it planned to adopt a rule stating that a vendor must do more than just sell pot. The rule imagined them also performing caregiving services, like accompanying patients to the doctor. But nearly all of those efforts have been unsuccessful.

"It's not surprising at all that the so-called dispensaries are popping up everywhere," says Colorado Attorney General John Suthers.

As the state's top Republican elected official and a law enforcer, Suthers was never fond of the medical marijuana concept. When folks complain to him about the number of dispensaries, he tells them there is almost nothing prosecutors can do.

That may be about to change, because there is strong interest among some state lawmakers to regulate this fast-growing industry. But the next legislative session doesn't begin until January.

"I think the combination of what's going on right now and this — if you'll excuse the expression — legal haze that we're in, I think it's going to cause things to be somewhat status quo until the legislature convenes," Suthers says. "Then I think you're going to have some very heated debate."

Stricter Limits Coming?

Already, law enforcement officials and district attorneys are lobbying for stricter limits on dispensaries. And the marijuana businesses have formed their own lobbying group, which is growing larger all the time as more dispensaries open.

In Little Amsterdam, Nicholas Paul runs a marijuana dispensary called Walking Raven. He says the new competition doesn't worry him much.

"I believe there's enough people out there that need the medicine," Paul says. "We're only going to have 500 patients that we take care off. We're almost full and ready to close our doors, which will leave room for another dispensary."

Paul says his business expects to pay about $80,000 in sales taxes each year. He hopes lawmakers will consider that as they debate tighter regulations on marijuana businesses.

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