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Wake-Up Call: Where there's smoke, there's ire at Denver City Council's medical marijuana hearing

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Our throats were dry, our eyes were red. Blame it on pot. Specifically, on listening to four hours of pot testimony and discussion -- on top of the salute to the National Western Stock Show and another hour of civic housekeeping -- at last night's Denver City Council meeting.

But there was no feeling of euphoria: just relief that after months of slogging through Charlie Brown's proposal to regulate the city's medical marijuana dispensaries, the council managed to pass an ordinance, rather than simply putting a lid on the business with a moratorium, or banning dispensaries altogether, as it increasingly looks like the Colorado Legislature could do.

I"Denver's courageous in trying to do regulations rather than a moratorium," said Doug Linkhart, who'd overseen the proposal's progress as chair of the Safety Committee.

In fact, state senator Chris Romer's weekend revelation that he was going to abandon his ambitious statewide regulation proposal -- of not just dispensaries, but grow operations -- and just go with a bill to redefine the doctor-patient relationship, clearing the way for law enforcement to push its own draconian proposal, hung over the entire night's proceedings. And the lawsuits that had been successfully filed against other municipalities, and the lawsuits that had been promised to councilmembers should they pass this measure, came up repeatedly through the discussion, with Rob Corry calling the proposal "de facto prohibition."

But in the end, and against all odds, the thirteen councilmembers all voted for the proposal, even though they each admitted that there were problems with it. Even if they couldn't agree on what those problems were.

The most critical, and criticized, parts of the ordinance:

All dispensaries must apply for a new dispensary license by March 1. The cost of the one-time application is $2,000, plus expenses; renewing every year is another $3,000.

No one who has been convicted of a felony or served time for a felony within the past five years can be an owner (10 percent or more) of a dispensary.

There can be no on-site consumption of cannabis.

A dispensary cannot be within 1,000 feet of another dispensary.

A dispensary cannot be within 1,000 feet of a school or daycare center.

Any business that got its sales-tax license by December 15 is grandfathered in, and exempt from the two buffer zone rules; any business that did not get its license by then is subject to them.

Close to a hundred people had signed up to speak during the expanded, two-hour public hearing; many more than that had to listen to the action in an overflow room, because council chambers were packed. But they all heard the heart-wrenching testimony from medical marijuana patients who had finally found relief -- if a dry mouth -- from cannabis. Heart-wrenching testimony from the caregivers who have found their calling helping these patients. And the heart-wrenching testimony from would-be dispensary owners who have poured thousands of dollars into businesses that did not have a license by December 15, are in violation of the buffer provisions, and may now have to shut down.

But at least council has embraced dispensaries, unlike state lawmakers. "Frankly," Brown said at the conclusion of the meeting, "I'm concerned with some of the things I'm reading. I suggest you focus your efforts two blocks up the hill." The legislature convenes tomorrow.

Other memorable moments from the evening (which was all captured on Channel 8, where you can watch the action for yourself):

-- Councilmembers (except for Michael Hancock, who had to borrow a hat from Pat Grant), were dressed for the National Western Stock Show salute, which made it look like the much more casually dressed speakers were pleading their case with the Montrose city council. But the confluence of events led to the evening's best (and only) joke: Council president Jeannie Robb congratulated Grant for getting such a crowd out for the Stock Show proclamation.

-- Testimony from Chris Collins, a dispensary owner and former construction worker who broke his back on the job -- not, however, at Charlie Brown's house, where he'd done work a few times, he revealed.

-- The property owner who'd inhaled twice, thrown up both times, and worries that the ordinance will encourage consolidation, ultimately giving Denver one giant dispensary, like "a Cheesecake factory."

-- Miguel Lopez, who complained that the ordinance discriminates against blacks and Latinos, and told councilman Paul Lopez that "you embarrass our people." The two Lopezes -- no relation -- later took their disagreement to the hall, and sounds of their heated discussion occasionally spilled into the chamber.

-- "All of you have cannabis in your body right now," one speaker told councilmembers (all of whom blessedly refrained from mentioning past drug history). "It's naturally produced" -- which explains its efficacy.

-- Another speaker told councilmembers that they were the court of King George, and the people in the audience were the thirteen colonies.

-- As for the mothers concerned about a dispensary close to schools in Stapleton, another speaker offered this: "Bad parenting is far more dangerous than medical marijuana dispensaries."

Although there was very little agreement during this long night, in the end, everyone could agree on one thing: The discussion is not over. Whether or not attorneys file lawsuits, councilmembers promised to revisit the ordinance in the months ahead, to fix what's not working.

"We did our jobs," Brown concluded. "But our jobs are not over. This is just the first phase."

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