Colorado's marijuana growing pains continue

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In July, at the end of a marathon twelve-plus hour hearing attended by hundreds, the state health board rejected contentious new restrictions on medical marijuana dispensaries, including one that may have limited them to five patients each. But that doesn't mean questions and controversies surrounding the state's booming medical marijuana industry have come to an end.

Last week, for example, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released new medical marijuana registry numbers that highlighted a potentially disturbing trend: The number of men under age thirty receiving medical marijuana registry cards is increasing, from 18 percent in the last six months of 2008 to 24 percent in the first six months of 2009. Over the past twelve months, the state's issued such cards to 1,792 guys under thirty, 89 percent of which had been diagnosed with severe pain. In other words, Colorado dudes are either being stricken in increasing numbers by some mysterious pain disease -- or something fishy is going on.

Of course, it could just be that young men, owing to their previous recreational dabblings in pot, are quicker to accept marijuana as a viable medicine than other types of potential patients. On the other hand, it wouldn't be all that surprising to discover that some of these dudes, eager to score reefer, are gaming the system. That's a possibility the state's chief medical officer, Ned Calonge, seemed to suggest when he made the following comment in a recent press release: "We are evaluating strategies that might allow us to assure that physicians documenting a diagnosis of chronic or severe pain are doing so within the standards of medical care."

Unfortunately for health officials, a high-profile medical marijuana legal case currently being heard in Boulder County Court does not support this scenario. Louisville resident Jason Lauve was arrested last year after police found more than thirty marijuana plants in his home -- considerably more than the six pot plants a typical Colorado medical marijuana patient is allowed. Now that his case has reached the courtroom, Lauve and marijuana activists aren't going down quietly. While Lauve, age 38, might be on the younger side for a diagnosis of severe pain, he's clearly not faking it. He's used a cane and a wheelchair since he broke his back in an accident while volunteering in 2004 at a recreation program at Eldora Mountain Resort.

If anything, these new state health statistics, plus Lauve's case, indicate the state's runaway medical marijuana business does indeed need additional regulation. With state rules vague about how patients and caregivers should obtain their medicine -- not to mention silent on issues like quality standards -- it's not surprising to hear that some young men could be abusing the system or that Lauve, as he claims, had more pot plants than allowed because he was struggling to learn how to grow medicine for himself.

The five-patients-per-caregiver rule rejected last month by the health board wouldn't have helped, however. In fact, it might have made things worse. If it had passed, the state might have seen a proliferation of small, fly-by-night dispensary operations -- a development that could have led to even more confusion and exploitation.

Officials should instead craft directives that will help guide the nascent industry's continued development, not constraints designed to kill it. After all, whether bureaucrats like it or not, medical marijuana is here to stay.

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