The question on Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett's Twitter page was only three words long, but the short query he posted last week could become the catalyst that brings some clarity to Colorado's oft-misinterpreted medical marijuana law.
"Are dispensaries legal?" the prosecutor asked plainly on the popular social networking site.
Garnett said the issue has become a distraction for his office as medical marijuana dispensaries -- facilities that sell pot to hundreds of patients -- proliferate throughout the county and applications for medical marijuana ID cards explode statewide.
Amendment 20, the law Colorado voters passed in 2000 that legalized medical marijuana, doesn't mention dispensaries and leaves open to interpretation just how the 10,000 patients who want medicinal pot statewide can legally obtain it.
"People have certain rights under the amendment and we don't want to violate these rights," Garnett said. "On the other hand, we want to enforce what's appropriate."
Garnett said he is considering the unusual move of challenging the legality of a medical marijuana dispensary or a pot grower in Boulder County by filing a declaratory or injunctive action against it. That, he said, would push the issue into a court and force a judge to shine some light on the intent and meaning of the amendment.
His office would have to first determine if it had standing to file such an action, Garnett said.
The district attorney described it as a softer approach to getting legal guidance on the law rather than charging someone with a drug violation and taking the case through a criminal proceeding, as happened last month when a jury acquitted a Louisville medical marijuana patient of possessing too much pot.
"I don't want to prosecute something under a law that's unclear or where there's a good faith dispute as to what it means," Garnett said.
Even the head of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Jim Martin, said there are "huge areas of limbo" in the law and that the proper venue for resolving the complications in the law's language is within the state Capitol.
But he's not confident that state legislators, with their minds on budget concerns and a flailing economy, have the time or resources to tackle the issue of medical marijuana any time soon.
In the meantime, Garnett -- plus many district attorneys' offices and law enforcement agencies across Colorado -- seeks a better understanding of what the amendment allows and doesn't allow.
"Where do these rights end and where do the laws prohibiting possession, use and sale of marijuana begin?" Garnett asked.
Dispensary as caregiver
Colorado's law states that a designated "caregiver" can provide marijuana to a patient suffering from chronic pain or a debilitating health condition, but it's not clear to many exactly who or what constitutes a caregiver.
In many cases, dispensaries operating out of storefronts and strip malls, have taken on that role.
"My feeling is that it wasn't the intent of the amendment for a distribution industry to sprout up," said Tom Sloan, commander of the Boulder County Drug Task Force. "There are no rules or regulations -- there's nothing in the amendment to support them."
Every time he turns around, he said, it seems like a new medical marijuana dispensary pops up in the county. At Sloan's last count, there were four dispensaries in Boulder, three in Nederland, one in Lyons, and three in Longmont.
He said there could easily be more, since they aren't required to register with the state.
Sloan said rules regarding dispensaries are so lax -- or nonexistent -- that the operators that sell cannabis in the form of brownies or other snacks aren't even subject to state health regulations regarding food quality.
Nonetheless, Sloan said he actually gets along with most of the owners of the dispensaries in Boulder County.
He said his drug task force isn't in the business of going around and trying to bust pot shops. He only investigates a facility if his agency receives a complaint, he said.
That level of tolerance is not universal across Colorado, particularly as dispensaries have multiplied in the wake of a July decision by the state health board to reject a proposed limit on the number of patients a caregiver can supply with medicinal pot.
Englewood, Silverthorne and Breckenridge have decided not to accept medical marijuana dispensary applications while leaders in those jurisdictions consider how to regulate them. The Durango City Council approved an emergency ordinance last week that temporarily suspends the issuance of business licenses to the facilities until a set of rules can be put into place.
Ted Tow, executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys' Council, said he believes dispensaries are illegal and open up plenty of opportunities for abuse.
He said the amendment, when first envisioned, called for language that specifically prohibited marijuana distribution.
Ron Hyman, who oversees the medical marijuana registry with the state health department, said the agency is aware that there is potential for abuse in the system.
Hyman said the 6,000 applications for medical marijuana ID cards that have come into his office in the last six weeks exceed what the agency received in all of 2008 and many of the new applicants are men, ages 20 to 25.
He also said that the agency has found that out of the 700 doctors in Colorado who can provide recommendations for medical marijuana consumption, 15 of them have been responsible for issuing 75 percent of the recommendations to the state's registered patients.
'Trying to do it right'
Mark Rose, owner of Grateful Meds in Nederland, said there is undoubtedly potential for abuse when it comes to medical marijuana.
That's all the more reason Rose wants solid guidance from the state or the courts, he said, so that dispensaries can operate without the fear of a raid and patients can consume without the fear of a felony charge from prosecutors.
"There's so much of a gray area and there's this delicate dance between us and law enforcement," said Rose, who opened his dispensary in June and counts a couple hundred patients as regular customers.
He said operators who are in it just to catch a piece of "gold fever" will eventually be drummed out of the marketplace if they can't provide a good product and excellent service. Patients themselves keep the dispensaries honest by ranking them on Web sites, Rose said.
"There's a lot of us out there that are trying to do it right," he said.
Rose said he would welcome more regulation of the industry if it preserved patients' abilities to get marijuana safely and reliably. And it could bolster the state's coffers at the same time, he said. Grateful Meds submitted $3,000 to $5,000 in tax proceeds to the state last month, he said.
Rose said his relations with Nederland police and the Boulder County Sheriff's Office have been nothing but positive so far.
"As long as everybody keeps it above board and everyone is up front about what they're doing," he said, "I can't see why anyone would want to mess with us."
Contact Camera Staff Writer John Aguilar at 303-473-1389 or firstname.lastname@example.org.