If you go

What: Boulder City Council meeting

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Boulder Municipal Building, 1777 Broadway

Medical marijuana complaints, by the numbers

89 -- Number of complaints about Boulder medical marijuana businesses in 2010

5 -- Number of complaints closed and resolved

25 -- Number of complaints closed with no violation found

59 -- Number of complaints under investigation

Officials in Boulder believe there could be dozens of businesses that grow or sell medical marijuana illegally in the city, and they are now taking steps to locate and shutter them.

But the biggest stumbling block is that no one is sure just how widespread the problem is.

Tuesday night, the Boulder City Council will hear a progress report on efforts to enforce a set of new laws the leaders approved last May to regulate the blossoming medical marijuana industry.

According to a memo sent to the council in advance of the meeting, city staffers estimate there could be about 85 dispensaries and growing operations that are operating illegally. The number, which city spokeswoman Sarah Huntley said is a "rough estimate," is based on the number of marijuana-based businesses that pulled sales-tax licenses but never submitted paperwork for a medical marijuana business license.

The city required all dispensaries and growing operations to apply for a newly created business license by Nov. 1. The city received 117 applications by the deadline, leaving an estimated 85 businesses that had sales-tax licenses to sell the plant but never applied for a business license.

"We don't know whether all those locations opened up shop," she said. "The number may actually be less than that. There could also be other illegal businesses we might not be aware of at all."

Now, the city is trying to figure out how many of those companies never opened up, which ones have closed and whether any of them are still doing business.

Toward that end, the city's Environmental and Zoning Enforcement Office has mailed 62 "cease and desist" orders to the last known addresses of suspect shops, Huntley said.

The city also recently mailed notices to four businesses ordering them to immediately close because they are located in residential areas. Officials have since confirmed three of the locations are closed or never opened, and they haven't heard back from one.

Huntley said the city is still figuring out the best ways to enforce the new rules, an effort that began in early November.

"We are trying to assess at this point what kind of resources we need," she said. "This is still a very new area for us."

Sean Fey, one of the owners of The Green Room, a dispensary at 1738 Pearl St., said he and others in the industry suspect there are some companies operating illegally.

"We're assuming there are people that aren't following all the regulations," he said. "If they're operating outside of the rules, then they're taking away business from the people who are legitimately trying to comply with all of the regulations."

The best way for legitimate businesses to compete with the illegal ones, he said, is to do everything by the book.

"It's our hope that we're doing everything we can to do our part," he said, including obtaining a sales-tax license early on and applying for state and local business licenses. "We're here to try and help legitimize the business."

When the council takes up the issue Tuesday night, it will also consider making some changes to the city's medical marijuana ordinance. Most of the proposed tweaks are technical in nature or bring the city's rules in line with the more restrictive state laws that govern medical marijuana commerce.

But one of the most substantive changes would prohibit medical marijuana businesses from opening shop in a building if it contains a residential unit -- regardless of whether the building is zoned to allow for medical marijuana businesses.

That proposal would affect people like Brad Melshenker, who owns The Greenest Green dispensary at 2034 Pearl St. in Boulder.

Melshenker's company is in a building that also has two condos. He and others in that situation would likely be grandfathered in under the old rules if the council approves the change.

But Melshenker said he recognizes the conflict, and he has already agreed to leave the building if a potential buyer of one of the condos put it in writing that he or she wouldn't purchase it unless the dispensary moves. So far, Melshenker said, no potential buyers have complained.

The council also will be asked to decide whether to exempt two dispensaries from zoning rules that would otherwise force them to shut down.

New Options Wellness, 2885 East Aurora Ave., and the Flower of Life Healing Arts Center, 3970 Broadway, both sit in areas that are zoned for residential use. Residential zones are strictly off limits to dispensaries, but the council could make an exception because the two shops in question are in planned urban development zones and aren't near any residential units.

The council seemed warm to the idea a few weeks ago, when the owners of the dispensaries asked for reprieve from the zoning conflict.

Contact Camera staff writer Heath Urie at 303-473-1328, or urieh@dailycamera.com.