CONTACT Colorado stinks at pot regulation - Dr. Christian Thurstone

Two audits released this week by Colorado government officials show the weaknesses and abject failures of this state’s efforts to regulate so-called “medical” marijuana. They also cast a harsh spotlight on the accuracy of news coverage that is profoundly influencing public opinion about this drug and its legalization.

It’s important for people to read the public records for themselves — and to weigh whether these findings are consistent with:

  • their beliefs about the importance of public health and safety
  • entirely too many news stories describing Colorado as a “leader” in regulation and crediting this state with acting far more responsibly than it has and does.

Take, for example, this subhead slapped above an August 2012 cover story in Governing magazine: “Colorado’s decade-long debate over how to manage medical marijuana has produced a tightly controlled approach that more states are starting to emulate.”

That journalistic pronouncement was known to be grossly inaccurate then — and it’s certainly looking even more foolish now.

The City and County of Denver

Colorado’s capital city released on July 18 a “performance audit” of its medical marijuana licensing process. You can read it here.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an advocate for responsible public policy regarding the drug, summarized the audit:

The audit found that Denver does NOT have a basic control framework in place for effective governance of the city’s medical marijuana program.

    1. The city’s medical marijuana records and data are incomplete, inaccurate and at times inaccessible.

    For example, some medical marijuana businesses are operating in the city without a valid city license. In fact, Denver does not know how many medical
    marijuana businesses are operating within its limits.

    2. The Department lacks formal policies and procedures to govern the medical marijuana business licensure process.

    3. The coordination between the city and the State of Colorado for dual medical marijuana licensure has been poor.

    4. Deadlines either are not established or not enforced for key steps in the medical marijuana licensure process.

    5. The medical marijuana licensure process lacks management oversight, adequate staffing and proper segregation of duties. There are too few staff to handle the required workload.

    6. The medical marijuana licensure fee was established arbitrarily. For example, Denver does not know the extent to which medical marijuana license fees cover the costs of administering the marijuana licenses.

    7. Key information has not been kept up-to-date as medical marijuana policies have evolved.

The State of Colorado

State auditors have issued in two parts their assessment of Colorado’s efforts to regulate medical marijuana. Those audits are scathing. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Key findings from Part 2:

Public Health does not sufficiently oversee physicians who make medical marijuana recommendations. We found evidence suggesting that some physicians may be making inappropriate recommendations.

– As of October 2012, a total of 903 physicians had recommended medical marijuana for the 108,000 patients holding valid red cards. Twelve physicians recommended medical marijuana for 50 percent of those patients, including one physician with more than 8,400 patients on the Registry.

Some physicians have recommended what appear to be higher-than-reasonable amounts of medical marijuana. In one case, a physician recommended 501 plants for a patient. In another case, a physician recommended 75 ounces of useable marijuana for the patient.

Public Health has not established a process for caregivers to indicate the significant responsibilities they are assuming for managing the well-being of their patients or for documenting exceptional circumstances that require a caregiver to take on more than five patients.

Public Health failed to issue red cards within the constitutionally required 35-day time frame for more than one- third of red cards that were valid as of December 2012. However, by May 2013 the process had improved to 99 percent of applications processed within the 35-day time frame.

It is not clear whether Public Health was adhering to the Colorado Constitution when it allowed staff of contract firms and other state agencies to access the confidential Registry.

Legal restrictions on Registry access create barriers for law enforcement agencies to effectively and efficiently enforce the state’s medical marijuana laws.

The Medical Marijuana Cash Fund has been out of compliance with a statutory limit on cash fund uncommitted reserves every year since Fiscal Year 2004. At the end of Fiscal Year 2012, the fund had excess uncommitted reserves of more than $11.3 million, the highest amount of excess uncommitted reserves of any cash fund in the State subject to the requirement.

What should these audits tell us?

Smart Colorado, a watchdog group that works to put the public’s interests ahead of the marijuana industry’s, urges all Colorado cities to exercise their rights to put a moratorium on retail marijuana sales. You can read the organization’s full statement here.

Among the group’s key points:

– Unlike the State of Colorado, which is bound by Amendment 64 to proceed at a feverish, unrealistic pace to allow retail marijuana to become operational, cities and counties have been granted the option to say SLOW DOWN! We ask council members to heed warning signs of impending disaster.

A Marijuana Attitudes Survey issued July 16 shows that passage of Amendment 64 by Coloradans “does not equate to support for a ‘laissez faire’ attitude” toward regulations. Citizens, especially parents, rightly expect robust regulation and enforcement.

– Adding retail licenses and business in January 2014 only will exacerbate the current mess. It is a complicated, daunting task. The health and safety of our citizens, particularly our youth, should not be sacrificed to meet an arbitrary timetable driven by commercial marijuana interests.

About Christine Tatum

Christine Tatum is a veteran journalist whose communications and market intel firm, Media Salad, Inc., helps companies and nonprofit organizations win business and stay ahead of their competitors. Her professional stops include the Chicago Tribune, The Denver Post, the (Arlington Heights, Ill.) Daily Herald and the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record. Her work also has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, and New York Times.

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