Flurry of Developments in Colo. Medical Pot Industry Includes Bans, New MMED Chief

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It’s been an interesting few days for medical marijuana in Colorado, with a host of developments both positive and negative.

Here’s a recap:

– Residents in several Colorado cities went to the polls yesterday to vote on medical marijuana bans, and the results are decidedly mixed. The industry faced a rather big setback in Fort Collins, where initial reports indicate that voters have approved a ban on dispensaries. If the early results hold up, the city’s 20 dispensaries will have to close their doors in the next few months, a move that will leave several hundred people without jobs. Dispensary owners could be in for some serious financial turmoil, as they invested tens of thousands of dollars each over the past year to meet strict new Colorado regulations. The election results in Fort Collins deal a psychological blow to the industry as well. Opponents of the ban raised nearly 10 times more campaign money than supporters of the measure and also had the help of a major union. Yet they still lost the battle.

Voters in Brush and Yampa also backed measures to ban MMCs, though the tiny towns don’t currently have any medical marijuana businesses. The news is a bit more positive in other communities. Voters in the mountain regions of Steamboat Springs, Oak Creek and Palisade supported medical marijuana, rejecting MMJ bans by a wide margin and allowing current dispensaries to remain open.

– A campaign promoting an initiative to legalize the general use of marijuana is gaining steam. The Coalition to End Marijuana Prohibition announced that it has already collected 100,000 signatures from residents who support the idea – or nearly 70 percent of the target. The group aims to collect 145,000 signatures by Jan. 6 – 86,105 of which must be deemed valid by the state to get the initiative on the ballot next year. The proposal calls for regulating marijuana like alcohol, allowing adults to more or less use it freely. If approved, it could drastically change the landscape for dispensaries and other businesses focused on providing marijuana solely for medical purposes.

-The state Department of Revenue announced a management shuffle in some key agencies, including the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division (MMED), which oversees and regulates Colorado’s pot industry. As part of the changes, Laura Harris – who currently heads the tobacco and liquor enforcement divisions – will replace Dan Hartman as director of the MMED. Hartman has been reassigned to the racing events enforcement division. The changes, effective Nov. 14, come amid controversy surrounding a column Hartman wrote warning cities about the downsides of banning dispensaries. Some state officials felt Hartman crossed the line and that his column could be interpreted as campaigning. Despite helping usher in strict new regulations on medical pot, Hartman had solid working relationship with many dispensary owners and industry groups and was seen by many as sympathetic to their concerns. Some insiders said they fear the department wanted to bring in someone who will be a little bit tougher on – and potentially less receptive to – the industry.

It’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions from these developments. More than anything, they reflect the precarious state of the industry right now. The ban in Fort Collins is worrisome for the industry, especially if it signals a wider backlash against medical marijuana. But the fact that several towns – albeit ones much smaller than Fort Collins – overwhelmingly supported the industry is a positive sign.

The success that the Coalition to End Marijuana Prohibition is having with its initiative to regulate marijuana like alcohol might be a better reflection of the mood in Colorado towards pot. It looks like the group will have way more than enough signatures by the January deadline, showing strong support for the idea. Whether voters will approve it next November is another matter. But it’s encouraging for the MMJ industry nonetheless, as it signals that Colorado is still accepting of marijuana, whether it’s used for medical reasons or not.