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Medical marijuana comes to Pagosa

With the recent opening of Good Earth Meds, medical marijuana has arrived in Archuleta County, and the event marks another milestone in a trend that is sweeping across rural Colorado and the southwest portion of the state.

“This is new to our region,” said Town of Pagosa Springs Police Chief Jim Saunders.

However, while medical marijuana may be new to Pagosa Springs and Archuleta County, area law enforcement reports indicate two medical marijuana vendors — called “dispensaries” — are operating in Durango; while Archuleta County Attorney Todd Starr said another serves customers on Cortez’s main street.

Moreover, while medical marijuana dispensaries may be new to Pagosa Country, medical marijuana has been on the state law books since November 2000, when voters approved Amendment 20 to the state Constitution authorizing the use of medical marijuana to alleviate certain debilitating medical conditions such as: cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, cachexia (wasting disease), severe pain, nausea and seizures.

Interestingly, although the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) maintains a detailed — although confidential — registry of medical marijuana users, the agency does not license, regulate, track or otherwise monitor medical marijuana dispensaries.

That said, according to CDPHE statistics compiled as of June 30, 2009, 8,918 Coloradans possess medical marijuana registry cards. Of that statewide number, 22 patients reside in Archuleta County, with 110 in La Plata County. Data shows 31 registered patients in Montezuma County.

Of the 8,918 registered patients, 89 percent cite severe pain as one of the primary conditions they use medical marijuana to treat — muscle spasms are the second most reported condition. According to the CDPHE, there have been three marijuana-related convictions of patients on the registry, although no physicians have experienced federal reprisals.

Only medical doctors licensed in Colorado can provide the referral necessary for patients to obtain a medical marijuana registry card.

Meanwhile, with state statute citing numerous rules for patients — such as eligible medical conditions, the documentation required to obtain a registry card and the quantities a patient can possess or grow — statute is virtually silent on the operation of dispensaries. Thus, dispensary owners, such as Bill Delany of Good Earth Meds, and local government and law enforcement agencies, are left to muddle through the regulatory and permitting processes within a legal framework many describe as fraught with “grey areas.”

For example, the purchase, possession, sale, distribution and cultivation of medical marijuana is allowed under Colorado law. However, federal law clearly prohibits the same activities.

In the case of Archuleta County, Undersheriff John Weiss said he recognizes the legislative conflicts, therefore his department is in a “wait and see” mode.

“There are some concerns, not just philosophical, but legal,” Weiss said. “There are a lot of grey areas and we want to be on the same page with all the other law enforcement agencies. We will be meeting with law enforcement agencies in the area to determine how we are going to handle it.”

Saunders said regional law enforcement leaders gathered Monday in Durango to discuss a variety of issues, among them, medical marijuana.

“We’re waiting on some info from Mesa County,” Saunders said. “We’re doing a lot of research right now to see how things play out. This kind of thing, for this area, is new.”

In response to the wait and research approach, Starr said, “I disagree with the wait and see attitude, because it’s here.”

Good Earth Meds’ presence in Archuleta County is proof. And with talk of other dispensaries interested in the Pagosa Springs area, Starr, county planning director Rick Bellis and the commissioners have begun to draft regulations poised for incorporation into the county’s land use code.

In short, Bellis and Starr said regulating medical marijuana dispensaries boils down to a zoning question.

“All Archuleta County can do is regulate it through our zoning process,” Starr said. “I’m not sure if it’s a fair analogy to the business (a dispensary) but it’s similar to an adult porn shop or adult business. If they comply with the zoning laws, they get to have their business. However, as written now (the county’s land use code), the

business (a dispensary) would require a conditional use permit.”

Starr said, in addition to defining parameters such as distances from schools or churches, the county can regulate hours of operation, and the manner in which the dispensary does business, i.e. signage, surveillance cameras, security measures, etc.

Bellis added that counties and municipalities can’t engage in exclusionary zoning tactics that would exclude commercial activities allowed by state statute.

“You can’t prohibit, but you can regulate such that it is compatible with adjacent land use,” Bellis said.

Starr said although the drafting of regulations has just begun, key to the discussion is location. Should the county zone medical marijuana dispensaries such that they are front and center in the community in order to safeguard safety and security of owners, their merchandise or patrons, or should they be relegated to the hinterlands?

In either case, Bellis said, “Ordinances like this are better if the town and county work together.”

To that end, the county will discuss medical marijuana dispensaries and zoning regulations with the town council at 10 a.m. today in Town Hall.

The case to watch

While municipalities and counties across Colorado struggle with drafting zoning regulations, attorneys and owners of medical marijuana dispensaries may soon be watching for a forthcoming decision from the Colorado Court of Appeals.

On Sept. 22 the court will hear People v. Clendenin — a potentially landmark case for the future of medical marijuana dispensaries in Colorado.

According to Denver Westword reporter Joel Warner, the case stems from a 2006 police raid on Stacy Clendenin’s home in Longmont, Colo., from which law enforcement officers seized 44 marijuana plants. Clendenin said she was cultivating the pot for several medical marijuana patients, presumably under the auspices of Clendenin serving as the individuals’ “care giver.”

Under Colorado law, individuals can possess and cultivate marijuana if they have been granted “caregiver” status by a holder of a valid state medical marijuana registry card.

According to Warner, a Boulder County District Court Judge found that because Clendenin had not met these patients herself, the individuals couldn’t testify in court that she was their “caregiver.” The jury later found Clendenin guilty of marijuana cultivation and possession.

In his appeal, Robert Corry, Clendenin’s attorney, intends to argue that Amendment 20 does not require a caregiver to have personal contact with the patient and the same expectation would not be put on users of standard pharmaceuticals.

Corry did not return a SUN staff request for comment by press time.

In the midst of this medical marijuana maelstrom, Delany remains firm in his conviction that medical marijuana has changed his life, and wants to bring the healing power of marijuana to Pagosa Springs and Archuleta County.

Listening to Delany’s tale of 11 years suffering from the debilitating effects of Crohn’s Disease, one hears the story of man who had reached his breaking point. According to Delany, a number of surgeries, steroid treatments and immune suppressant drugs had steadily degraded his quality of life until he was ready to give up, or try anything. Enter medical marijuana.

In January 2009, Delany obtained a registry card and gave medical marijuana a try. Soon thereafter, he said his health improved and, “I have passed the threshold where I’m feeling more well than sick.”

Knowing the challenges he’s faced, and the stigma attached to medical marijuana use, Delany said he wants to change the future for other patients who have suffered as he has.

“I am standing up for the rights of patients in Archuleta County to have their medication and not to have to live in fear while trying to heal — in full compliance of a ten-year-old law. For some, this is a life or death issue and we shouldn’t have to drive to Durango or anywhere else. Imagine if you need this, you can only afford a little, you’re sick and have to drive 120 miles to medicate legally. We deserve better.

“I’m a fledging, this is a dream, a goal. I’d like to put the people together in a clinic that would be staffed in such a way that we could radically change and improve people’s lives,” Delany said. “ I’d like to do it with the blessing of the community, if I can.”

james@pagosasun.com