Business owner Forrest Charlesworth scored a victory for the medical marijuana industry Thursday afternoon when El Paso County commissioners voted 5-0 to renew the license of his business that had incurred a previous violation.
Commissioners renewed the licenses for Charlesworth’s New Age Medical and Humboldt Care and Wellness, but also voted 5-0 to impose a 14-day suspension beginning Nov. 2. That decision could change on appeal or a fine could be accepted in lieu of suspension.
New Age Medical is Charlesworth’s medical marijuana dispensary on the far east side of Colorado Springs on Space Village Avenue, near Peterson Air Force Base.
Commissioner Mark Waller, a former state legislator widely known as an opponent of the marijuana industry, said it wasn’t appropriate to impose his opinions on the license renewal and called the previous violation “an administrative error.” But he defended the suspension ruling.
“It seemed appropriate for the level of violation,” Waller said. “They weren’t truthful on the form to renew their license. It didn’t seem to me that it rose to the level of some sort of breach that would elevate it to a denial of renewal of their license, but it seemed to me that a suspension was appropriate in that circumstance.”
On the license renewal form, Charlesworth had failed to disclose the previous violation. He feared that omission might put him out of business. He was relieved when the decision went in his favor.
“I think the county commissioners had some serious issues to weigh and I do believe they came to an appropriate decision,” said Charlesworth’s attorney, Cliff Black, one of the area’s foremost medical marijuana lawyers.
Charlesworth’s business includes a grow operation east of town and a medical marijuana dispensary on West Garden of the Gods Road, plus facilities in the Denver. Charlesworth previously said his business is worth $1.6 million and that he’s close to selling his eight licensed facilities to Prima Brands.
Black explained the previous violation Charlesworth had made.
“Under the medical marijuana rules, every medical marijuana center has to grow 70 percent of the product it sells,” Black said. “It can then wholesale 30 percent of its product to another medical marijuana center. Under the rules, the grow has to send all the marijuana to the medical marijuana center that it’s under. And the medical marijuana center can sell that 30 percent to another medical marijuana center [in Colorado]. What happened in this situation is an employee sent marijuana directly to a different one of Mr. Charlesworth’s medical marijuana centers [in Edgewater] but not the one it should’ve gone to.”
Charlesworth paid a $10,000 fine for that error. It wouldn’t have been discovered if he hadn’t self-reported a theft by an employee, which led to an inspection.
“The state now has a different interpretation of that rule and that is allowed now,” Black said.
Black said it can be difficult for business owners to stay abreast of ever-changing medical marijuana laws, and he’s not alone.
Detective Michael Hughes of the Colorado Springs Police Department, who works in the Metro Vice, Narcotics & Intelligence division, did the inspection on Charlesworth’s properties as part of the agreement with El Paso County licensing and an agreement with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.
“I did not find any violations during that inspection on Aug. 1, 2017,” Hughes said. “Upon renewal of any licenses within the county limit we’re required to do an inspection.”
Hughes said it’s tough to interpret medical marijuana laws, even for law enforcement.
“The rules change and then they are interpreted in different forms,” he said. “Even the Colorado Constitution, Article 18, sections 14 and 16, with the medical and recreational, everything’s open for a different interpretation just depending on who you’re talking to and what they believe the words mean.”
How hard is it for a business owner to keep up with the changes?
“It’s very difficult because the rules constantly change every year with new legislation,” Hughes said. “I’m constantly reading the new updated rules and laws to see what’s changing and it’s very difficult for these businesses to be 100 percent compliant.”
Sgt. Roger Vargason, also of the city’s Metro Vice, Narcotics & Intelligence division, said, “These rules change so frequently, it’s hard to keep up with them — even from a law enforcement standpoint. As a business, I think it’d be very difficult.”
County commissioners had voted 3-2 against renewing the license of another medical marijuana business, New Horizons, in May. New Horizons, located at 1460 Woolsey Heights, had more serious violations than Charlesworth’s business.
Black said he hopes to shorten the suspension commissioners levied on Charlesworth’s business.
“I think the county commissioners’ decision is reasonable,” Black said. “We are concerned about a 14-day suspension because the reality of that is it can cause you to lose business. In the medical marijuana industry, your plant limit, or count, is determined by the number of patients that you have. If patients come to the business during that 14-day period and the business is closed, they could go to another business and sign that business up as their new center, which means this company — Humboldt — would then be required to start cutting down plants. Crops can easily be worth a quarter of a million dollars and if you have to start cutting down plants because you lose patients because of a suspension that can be a fine in and of itself, if you will.
“We’re going to put in some type of petition to try and reduce the suspension.”
Black could also ask commissioners to impose a fine instead of the suspension. Would that be preferable?
“Depending on the amount of the fine,” he said.
The Business Journal previously covered Charlesworth’s situation with county commissioners in September. Read that story here: