By COLLEEN SLEVIN (AP)
DENVER — A push to regulate the state’s medical marijuana dispensaries appears to be nearing the finish line.
The Colorado Senate passed the proposed regulations in a 26-9 vote on Thursday, sending them back to the House to review changes made to the bill. The lack of controversial changes makes it likely that lawmakers will be able to pass regulations before they must adjourn next week.
If the House re-approves the bill, it would likely become law because it contains provisions requested by Gov. Bill Ritter, including allowing local bans.
The bill would require dispensaries to get both local and state licenses and allow cities and counties to ban dispensaries within their borders. Areas with bans would still have to allow individual caregivers to provide marijuana to up to five people.
Dispensaries would have to undergo criminal background checks, and the state revenue department would check that their funding has no criminal ties, similar to conditions in the gaming industry. Dispensaries would also have to grow 70 percent of their marijuana, a provision aimed at keeping tabs on where the drug is being sold.
Regulators expect only about half of the existing 1,100 dispensaries in the state to continue operating if the regulations are passed.
The overwhelming vote in the Senate belied mixed feelings about the bill, which was sponsored by Sens. Chris Romer, D-Denver, and Nancy Spence, R-Centennial.
Some lawmakers want to bring the industry under control but disapprove of selling marijuana from storefronts. Others are worried that the bill favors consolidation and larger dispensaries, which could limit access and drive up costs for patients who rely on the drug.
Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman said he thinks his Denver district has the most dispensaries of any district in the state and that he’s been besieged with requests from voters to do something about them.
He said he believed the bill was too heavily influenced by the needs of dispensaries without enough thought to patients. But he said not passing regulations could lead local and federal law enforcement agencies to start raiding dispensaries, a move that would also shut off access for patients.
“I do think the failure of this bill would send a signal to them that this is open season on this new and budding industry that has taken off to serve this market,” he said.
Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, said the local ban violated the constitutional right to medical marijuana passed by voters in 2000 and would be challenged in court.
The changes made in the state Senate include a sales tax exemption for marijuana sold to low-income people and keeping the location of marijuana grows secret. The Senate bill originally would have kept all information about grows off-limits to the public, but senators later agreed to redact the location after the Colorado Press Association objected.
The revenue department said it will need 27 enforcement agents, auditors and administrators to enforce the regulations. Those positions would be paid for with $2 million in fees paid by dispensary owners, growers and makers of marijuana products.