Colo. Pot Task Force Finishes Work

By Ben Markus - Colorado Public Radio

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper's task force on recreational marijuana wrapped up it’s work last night. We now have a better idea of what the industry will look like, who can buy marijuana, and how to protect kids. That is: if the recommendations are adopted by the State legislature.

On election night when word came down that Amendment 64 had passed, Governor John Hickenlooper released a statement. He said many issues still needed to be resolved and not to break out the goldfish and cheetos just yet. A nod to the junk food munchies that accompany marijuana use.

At last night’s meeting it was time to break out bags of goldfish and cheetos.

Sederberg: "Yeah, I’ll keep these as souvenirs, although their flamin’ hots, which is not my preference for my cheetos personally."

Christian Sederberg is one of the authors of Amendment 64. He says the task force did a good job of maintaining the spirit of the constitutional amendment. Like with their recommendation to allow out-of-state residents to buy marijuana.

Sederberg: "That’s the fundamental premise of the whole thing, so saying you can possess it legally because you’re 21, but you can’t purchase it legally, all that will do is transition and create a new black market."

Allowing out-of-state residents to buy pot will open the door to marijuana tourism -- and will likely be a boon for marijuana businesses. Michael Elliott heads the Medical Marijuana Industry Group. He even supports the recommendations that might hurt business -- like a ban on TV, radio, and most print advertising.

Elliot: "This recommendation looks pretty reasonable, there’s gonna be ways for the businesses to advertise, but in a more targeted fashion to people who want to see it as opposed to slapping it in the face of people who don’t."

But the task force could not agree on a tax rate for marijuana. And that concerns Elliott and the industry because if taxes are set too high then many people will continue to buy on the black market.

Elliot: "So this really is one of the most important issues to us, because if the black market continues to dominate the sale of cannabis in Colorado, well then this experiment is not going to work. We’re not going to improve public safety, it’s going to be decentralized, it’s going to be extremely difficult for law enforcement to control it."

The task force also had to punt on a major issue -- banking. Dispensaries can’t legally have accounts because banks are regulated by the federal government and marijuana is still against federal law. The task force essentially said there was nothing the state could do about that, other than to ask Congress to change federal law.

Many of the task force’s recommendations concerned kids. Charles Garcia is with the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. He praised the recommendation to not criminalize first offense marijuana possession for minors. Even the smallest drug offense can haunt kids for life.

Garcia: "They apply for student loans, one of the questions that’s asked: have you ever been convicted of a drug crime...yes. And they don’t think about it until they reach that point in their lives."

And the task force worries that with more marijuana in society more kids lives will be disrupted. Not to mention small time drug busts disproportionately affect minorities.

The task force also decided all marijuana needs to leave retail stores in a childproof bag … and pot can’t be flavored because it may attract kids. Addiction researcher Dr. Christian Thurstone says banning chocolate-flavored joints is a good thing, but he admits they don’t really know if these steps will keep kids away from pot.

Thurstone: "We’re doing this kind of blindly, we have no model to go from, we have no clear data to work from so we have to use our common sense and go from there."

Those recommendations are now with the legislature -- which must pass them into law before the end of the session in May. Task force member and Denver House Democrat Dan Pabon would prefer an omnibus bill.

Pabon: "We really want this to be a package deal, I mean there are some recommendations that depend on other recommendations, and so when you start separating ‘em out you have really a mishmash of public policy and I don’t think that’s going to serve anyone well."

Whatever comes out of the legislature will have to be signed by Governor Hickenlooper. Who made a surprise appearance yesterday to thank the task force for its work. Afterwards he said marijuana was on the minds of governors from other states at a recent conference.

Hickenlooper: "Colorado’s kind of a laboratory where these questions are going to be resolved. They’re trying to look at Washington and Colorado and say alright: ‘what are the two different approaches, what should we be doing’ in preparation, it’s going to happen in other states as well, right?"

He added all this work could be for naught if the feds decide to shut retail shops down. And he said he expects word on that soon from the Justice Department.

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