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State panel finishes work on marijuana proposals

Posted: Friday, Mar 1st, 2013

Courier staff writer

ALAMOSA — Colorado isn’t waiting around for the Obama administration to clarify its position on the state’s voter-approved recreational marijuana law.

Amendment 64 gives state and local government entities very little time to implement new regulations that are at odds with federal law, or contrary to the laws that are on the books in neighboring states.

Yet they can’t look elsewhere for a quick fix to the many legal and policy-related challenges they face, since no other state has ever tackled the issue of legal marijuana use for recreational purposes.

Gov. John Hickenlooper and others realized that they had to get busy if they were going to introduce a new regulatory framework that could take effect by a July 1 deadline. So the governor created a special task force that was asked to come up with practical and realistic ways to carry out the voters’ wishes.

The Amendment 64 Implementation Task Force finished its work on Thursday, and its members will now present their recommendations to state legislators, regulators and Hickenlooper.

One thing they won’t be doing is debating the merits of the law, which allows adults 21 years or older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana for personal use. They agreed ahead of time to respect the will of the voters who approved the measure.

Instead, they’ll be presenting their ideas on how to change existing state and local laws that prohibit the possession, sale or distribution of marijuana, while protecting public health and safety.

Some of their recommendations aim to minimize the potential for conflicts with the Controlled Substances Act, or the heavy-handed response that could follow a high-profile violation of the federal law.

Others try to ease the concerns of leaders in neighboring states, where officials have voiced their dismay about Colorado’s actions.

Among other things, the task force mulled over the idea of placing restrictions on licensed marijuana retailers that pop up near the state’s borders.

It also suggested that law enforcement agents in Colorado could coordinate their drug interdiction efforts with their counterparts elsewhere in order to reduce the flow of marijuana across state lines.

However, a majority of panel members agreed that the legislature should not prohibit the sale of marijuana to out-of-state residents.

They feared that the move would create a black market, enabling Colorado residents to stock up on cheap and legal marijuana, and then sell the drug to out-of-state traffickers at a huge markup.

As it is, there’s money to be made in the trafficking of Colorado-grown marijuana across state lines. According to some estimates, the going rate for marijuana in South Dakota is roughly twice as high as it is here.

If pot-smoking tourists flock to legal Colorado retailers in the years to come, the panel came up with some options that could minimize any impacts on their home states.

For instance, when residents of New Mexico, Wyoming or Kansas buy marijuana from a licensed Colorado retailer, they could be reminded that they cannot take the drug home with them. Likewise, the state could install signs along border-area roads and at the state’s airports to remind marijuana users that it’s illegal to go any further with their purchases.

While a majority of the panel supported those ideas, their recommendations were not unanimous.

The dissenting members noted that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder remains concerned about marijuana smuggling operations between Colorado and other states.

“If the federal government determines we are not doing enough to contain recreational marijuana within the state, it increases the likelihood the federal government will take action and potentially shut down the entire industry,” the dissenters wrote.

At the very least, they suggested that the state should make it harder for drug traffickers to buy large amounts of legal pot at any one time.

If the state set tight limits on sales to non-residents, a drug trafficker would have to visit over 100 marijuana retailers in order to collect a pound of the stuff. All of that time and effort would create a strong disincentive, they wrote.

The U.S. Department of Justice hasn’t weighed in at length on Amendment 64, except to say that the cultivation, sale and possession of marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

“The department’s responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged,” U.S. Attorney John Walsh said in a statement. “Neither states nor the executive branch can nullify a statute passed by Congress.”

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