Will Monday be judgment day for Colorado's medical marijuana industry?

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It's hard to understate the explosive rise of Colorado's medical marijuana industry. When Westword took an in-depth look at issue in the February 2009 article "Medical marijuana Has Become a Growth Industry in Colorado," just over 5,000 patients had been approved by the state to use marijuana -- which was legalized in the state for medicinal purposes when voters passed Amendment 20 in 2000. And, with roughly two-dozen marijuana dispensaries statewide, experts at the time were saying Colorado's dispensary industry was second only to California's.

Now, just five months later, the number of patients who've received a state-issued medical marijuana card has skyrocketed to more than 9,000 and, according to Brian Vicente, executive director of the drug-policy reform organization Sensible Colorado, there are now about fifty dispensary facilities operating quietly around the state, half of them in the Denver metro area. Vicente estimates there are also another 25 or so marijuana delivery services; a half-dozen enterprises specializing in edible forms of pot; and an assortment of tax accountants, realtors and legal consultants catering to medical marijuana entrepreneurs.

But come this Monday, July 20, the Colorado Board of Health -- the advisory board for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) -- will consider new medical marijuana regulations that some believe will jeopardize the entire booming industry.

Among other changes, the regulations would limit each medical marijuana caregiver to five patients -- a rule that, on its surface, seems to disallow dispensaries, which currently act as caregivers for unlimited numbers of patients. CDPHE first instituted that rule in 2004 and it deterred the growth of Colorado dispensaries until a Denver District Court judge overturned it in 2007 because its enactment lacked public input. This time around, health officials have encouraged feedback by letting all registered patients and caregivers know about the potential new rules -- and from the looks of it, they won't be lacking in input.

"It's gonna be wild," says Vicente of the hearing on Monday, which will run from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., followed by the health board deliberating on the regulations. The hearing was originally for March 18, but after CDPHE received overwhelming response in opposition to the regulations, officials were forced to hold off until they found a larger venue for the event. The space they eventually chose, Conference Room 250 at the Tivoli Student Union on Auraria Campus, 900 Auraria Parkway, can hold 450 people -- but even that might be too small, since Vicente says he expects upwards of a thousand people to come out in opposition to the rules.

Marijuana activists are also planning several events leading up to the big showdown. Today, for example, the Colorado Coalition for Patients and Caregivers will hold a demonstration calling for a withdrawal of the proposed new rules at CDPHE headquarters, 4300 Cherry Creek Drive South, at 10 a.m., followed by a similar protest at 1 p.m. at the Attorney General's office, 1525 Sherman Street. Then, tomorrow night, Owsley's Golden Road bar at 2151 Lawrence Street will host a "Rock the Hearing" education and social event with bands, comedians and speakers starting at 4 p.m.

Not only has the Colorado medical marijuana industry swollen considerably since these rule changes were first proposed in February, but the political landscape around the issue has shifted as well. The Obama administration has softened federal antagonism towards medical marijuana, curtailing DEA raids on state-sanctioned dispensaries and dialing back the tough-guy "war on drugs" mentality. These changes may be one of the reasons an increasing number of entrepreneurs are jumping into the medical pot business around these parts, says Vicente -- though he believes Colorado health officials are aiming to torpedo these new businesses once and for all. "It's frustrating because, on a national scale, we have had so many positive developments with regards to medical marijuana. But here in Colorado, the state health department is trying to take a major step backwards," he says. "If they pass this, it will rip patients out of safe caregiver relationships."

The new rules "could have an impact on the large-scale operations," said Ron Hyman, registrar of vital statistics for the CDPHE, in February. "I would say it probably will." Even some medical marijuana proponents believe additional regulation is needed: With the industry operating in a legal gray area, several dispensaries have been plagued by robberies and patients have complained of inconsistent practices, high prices, oversized egos, safety concerns and possible black-market involvement.

Then again, it's hard to say for sure whether the five-patient-per-caregiver rule, if passed, would actually destroy the fledgling industry. Colorado dispensaries and their legal consultants have become adept at navigating the state's nebulous marijuana rules to their financial advantage. It's likely that with enough money and determination, they'll find a way around this new challenge, too. As Vicente, who represents several dispensaries, puts it, "I don't know if you can destroy the medical marijuana industry."

One thing's for sure: Monday's hearing is going to get feisty. With scheduled testimony from health officials, law enforcement, marijuana advocacy groups and others, the marathon meeting will provide a snapshot of the growing ranks of Coloradans who've come to depend on marijuana as medicine -- not to mention those who depend on it for their bottom line. Westword will be following the fireworks all day long. Check back here for updates.

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