The City Council-appointed marijuana task force convened for the third time Jan. 22 to discuss potential city ordinances that could affect new and existing medical marijuana industries, including manufacturing, cultivation and dispensary operations, which are currently under the umbrella of a six-month moratorium (the reason the task force was created) that started in November.
The task force began its session with a presentation by Jason Warf, executive director of the Southern Colorado Cannabis Council. The council is a nonprofit industry group representing medical marijuana patients, recreational consumers, business owners and caregivers.
The task force questions to Warf mirrored the concerns from previous meetings — discussions about residential grows and the caregiver model, which has fewer regulations than commercial dispensaries.
“We definitely represent more dispensary owners than caregivers,” Warf told the task force. “But our members, since day one, asked us to respect the rights of caregivers, as far as protecting them, and that’s something we’ve always done. And there’s reason for that.”
Warf said caregivers take care of “the sickest of the sick,” to include patients with cancer and AIDS.
“All those folks need elevated plant counts,” he said. “In order for [patients] to get the amount of medicine they need — it’s just not feasible [with plant limits].”
Warf said the main reason that the cannabis council opposed adding new caregiver regulations at the state level last year was plant limits, adding, “We think lowering the plant count would absolutely take medicine from the people who need it.”
State law defines caregivers as people who are allowed to grow and transport marijuana for patients. They can have up to six plants a patient for up to five patients plus the caregiver, for a total of 36 plants. However, caregivers can ask for an exemption from the patient’s doctor, and are often allowed to have up to 99 plants.
In Colorado Springs, caregivers are limited to six per patient, regardless of physicians’ exemptions. Still, some residents have complained about the impact of residential grows on the neighborhoods where they’re located. At earlier meetings, police officials told the task force they don’t have effective enforcement tools.
John Harding, a task force member who has said there is a grow operation near his home, asked Warf if there was any way to track where caregiver-grown marijuana goes.
“I think you get into a very touchy area there, especially after the passage of [Amendment] 64,” Warf said. “[Tracking is] unenforceable … unless we’re giving carte blanche to law enforcement to come into people’s houses. … Legally now, in Colorado, any adult has the constitutional right to grow six plants, period.
“I’m not a law enforcement officer, but I would assume you’d need some sort of warrant,” he continued. “… I don’t think [law enforcement] can walk in, even [to a residence with a caregiver registration,] without suspicion of criminal activity.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issues caregiver licenses, and the caregivers must disclose their locations, as well as patient and plant counts. That information can already be accessed by law enforcement via a state database.
“I would say that is absolutely something the city could do as well,” Warf said. “That may be a useful tool for law enforcement to know who and where their caregivers are.”
City Clerk Sarah Johnson asked if the industry would favor being on a city database.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but there is absolutely a vibe right now in the caregiver community that they are already overregulated,” Warf said. “I would assume there would be some pushback.”
Warf said a local version of the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division could be the most practical way to address caregiver grows without impeding constitutional rights.
When asked about the caregiver model being used as a shell for illegal sales, Warf said he thought that was “a little bit of a myth. I believe the people who have been arrested who claim to be caregivers, if you were to look those up, they weren’t registered. Ninety-nine percent of the caregivers I’ve met in my six years in Colorado are very dedicated to their patients,” he said. “They do far more than any dispensary can claim to do. … I think it’s absolutely a myth.”
City Council Administrator Eileen Gonzalez said the city received complaints that residential grows were involved in illegal trafficking — one of the reasons behind the task force. “Why is it we’re hearing there’s so much of a problem then?” she asked.
Warf said it should be determined first if complaints are against licensed caregivers. If licensed, it should be determined whether they are breaking any laws, and if they are, the legal system should use existing enforcement capabilities.
“We have more than enough in statute to go after them,” Warf said.
The task force also discussed the modification of homes to allow marijuana grow operations, but bypass or ignore regional building regulations.
Tanya Garduño, a former caregiver and president of the Southern Colorado Cannabis Council, said one problem is the regional building department’s policies haven’t kept up with the times.
“There are houses that need to be modified to make this happen,” Garduño said. “But the problem is, when you try to contact regional building to have your property upgraded, you can’t say, ‘Hey, can I have this upgraded to meet the standards established for cannabis cultivation?’ It doesn’t exist. These caregivers can have their properties modified to support something like a kiln for pottery, but they have to go under the guise of that because there isn’t a standard [for cannabis].”
Garduño added inspectors need to be trained on how to handle plants to avoid damage and contamination.
As the crow flies
The task force also discussed amending other city medical-marijuana industry codes — increasing the distance from drug rehabilitation clinics, residential day care centers and schools.
Attorney and task force member Charles Houghton said the group should be careful in how it defines day care facilities.
“The state defines the 1,000-foot buffer, which is state law, from a residential day care,” he said. “That doesn’t mean a day care in a residence. What it means is a facility like juvenile detention or a halfway house for teens. … If they have to bring their jammies and their toothbrush because they’ll be living there for awhile — that’s what they mean by a residential day care facility.”
City code currently states medical marijuana industries have to be 400 feet from sensitive areas. It was recommended Colorado Springs change its distance to match state law.
Colorado Springs Planning Director Peter Wysocki said it would need to be determined whether that was “as the crow flies” or via pedestrian access.
As the crow flies, 18 operational businesses would be within the new boundary, while four would be affected if pedestrian access were used as the criterion, according to Lee McCrae, a license enforcement officer in the city clerk’s office.
If the distance were extended to 1,000 feet, businesses inside the boundary could be grandfathered under a nonconforming use that would allow them to continue operations and sell the business for an identical use, but would not allow expansion at that location.
The task force was developed to review, study, develop, evaluate laws and regulations pertaining to marijuana businesses, including location and licensing criteria, fees, advertising and other time, place, manner and number regulations.
The task force’s next meeting will be Feb. 12 and the group may add a meeting Feb. 19 pending progress.
Recommendations will be made to City Council on March 21, and Council will vote on any adoption of new ordinances following normal Council procedures and public comment.