ARCHIVED  February 25, 2011

Windsor’s experience highlights evolving marijuana regulations

WINDSOR – Tina Valenti thought her medical marijuana dispensary, In Harmony Wellness, was on its way to being accepted as part of Windsor’s business community and health-care landscape.

Valenti’s business opened in June 2009 and eventually had 300 regular patients buying marijuana for their medical needs. But last year things changed.

A petition drive during the summer put the issue of whether or not MMDs should be allowed to operate within Windsor on the November ballot. And that’s when residents voted decisively to require the town board to adopt an ordinance to ban MMDs.

Now, Valenti is facing a May 15 deadline to shut down the business she invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipping and staffing. And after playing by the rules that existed at the time and going forward, Valenti is hurt and angry by how she was treated.

“I was entirely upfront with everyone,” she said. “I think it was very unfair.”

Valenti’s experience has been repeated in many other towns in Northern Colorado over the last couple years. Even though state voters adopted a constitutional amendment in 2000 to allow the use of medical marijuana in the state, few MMDs sought local licenses until after the 2008 election of President Barack Obama.

Obama’s administration signaled a softening in the federal prohibition on marijuana possession or use for any reason – still on the books – which resulted in an explosion of requests for MMD licenses across the state.

Local jurisdictions responded with little guidance from the state or courts, mostly permitting them under Amendment 20. But some, responding to community pressure, began backpedaling on allowing dispensaries.

As 2011 begins, Northern Colorado is seeing the pendulum swing against MMDs.

Windsor a microcosm

Windsor’s experience is perhaps a microcosm of the Northern Colorado MMD evolution.

The once rapidly growing town of 18,000 had three dispensaries operating in the first half of 2010; two – Valenti’s In Harmony Wellness and A New Dawn Wellness Clinic – were operating legally. A third, MediGrow, was not because it opened just after the town imposed a moratorium on new operations in December 2009.

MediGrow’s owner, Lazarus Pino, defied the moratorium, claiming his business had opened just before the moratorium went into effect and had not been treated fairly. However, town officials felt otherwise and fined Pino up to $300 a day for violating the moratorium.

Pino’s case was heard in July 2010 by Windsor Municipal Court Judge Michael Manning, who ruled Pino had violated the moratorium. However, instead of fining Pino the more than $20,000 penalty he could have faced, Manning ordered him to shut his doors and pay $1,900 in fines and another $532 in administrative fees.

But by then the wheels against MMDs in Windsor were turning quickly. In April, a city election was held that asked if voters wanted to cap the number of dispensaries to those already operating. By a 4-to-1 vote, residents favored capping MMDs at two.

But by summer, a citizen-initiated petition was circulating to have the town board put a measure on the November ballot to ban MMDs outright and require those already in business to close. That measure passed by 2,000 votes and both legally operating MMDs were advised they must close by mid-May.

Request rejected

The owners of New Dawn Wellness Clinic declined to comment for this story. In Harmony’s Valenti said she asked the town for an extension until the state lifts its moratorium on new businesses in July. But that request was not granted, she said.

“I begged them for more time,” she said. “Now, I’ll have to reapply to the state as a brand-new business with brand-new fees, and what are my patients going to do?”

Valenti said she wants to continue to have an MMD but isn’t sure where she will relocate to. State law requires an MMD to get local approval before it can apply for a state license.

“I’m hoping in some form or another we can continue to exist,” she said. “There’s a backlash now, and (Windsor’s) banning did nothing for it.

And that means other legally operating MMDs are on their way out, too, she said.

“I think only the strongest will survive over the next six months or so. They took the floor out from under us in Windsor, and that was the death card.”

Ian MacCargar, Windsor town attorney, said Valenti ran a good, clean business but had taken a big chance on local residents accepting it long-term.

“I think her investment was due to a misplaced reliance on the town’s tolerance for her business,” he said. “It was a calculated risk, and unfortunately she came up on the wrong end.”

MacCargar said the town’s hands were tied when it came to Valenti’s request for an extension.

“That mid-May date is tied to the petition and language that says you must shut down within 180 days of when the election official certifies the results,” he said.

MacCargar said he personally was hoping the town would give the dispensaries some more time to prove themselves good community businesses that could operate under city regulations.

“I was hoping the citizens would let us regulate them and see if that worked,” he said. “But the residents of Windsor said no, we don’t want them.”

Evolution of policy

Brian Vicente, executive director of Sensible Colorado, a statewide organization “working for an effective drug policy,” according to its website, said Windsor’s experience is indicative of the ongoing evolution of MMD regulation at the state and local level.

“It’s a new area of health care and it’s taking people a while to wrap their heads around it,” he said. “Under state law, communities can ban them. It’s a community issue, and we respect that.”

But communities that do ban MMDs are opening themselves up to possible legal action, he noted: “According to Amendment 20, patients have the right to access medical marijuana and when cities ban that, it opens them up to the threat of a lawsuit.”

Vicente said choosing outright bans instead of caps on MMDs is a “short-sighted” approach to the issue. And it also opens the door to more black-market purchases of marijuana, he said.

“If that access goes away, people will buy it on the black market and that’s not the way it should be,” he said.

Vicente said he believes the MMD pendulum will swing back again over the next few years.

“I think generally most communities will eventually support these medical marijuana shops,” he said. “I think a lot of the communities that banned them will start noticing their neighboring communities are benefitting from job growth and sales tax revenue and just helping their residents that need it.”

WINDSOR – Tina Valenti thought her medical marijuana dispensary, In Harmony Wellness, was on its way to being accepted as part of Windsor’s business community and health-care landscape.

Valenti’s business opened in June 2009 and eventually had 300 regular patients buying marijuana for their medical needs. But last year things changed.

A petition drive during the summer put the issue of whether or not MMDs should be allowed to operate within Windsor on the November ballot. And that’s when residents voted decisively to require the town board to adopt an ordinance to ban MMDs.

Now, Valenti is facing a May…

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