Medical marijuana: Does using $9 million in fees for budget shortfall screw MMJ patients?
Although Governor Bill Ritter signed medical marijuana bills earlier this year, he's never been a big fan of the stuff. Still, he hopes to use $9 million in MMJ fees to help fill a $60 million budget hole -- a decision that angers advocates upset by the tremendous backlog of unprocessed license applications.
Among those upset by this turn of events is the Cannabis Therapy Institute's Laura Kriho, who points to this passage in the medical-marijuana-regulatory measure, still widely known as HB 1284:
12-43.3-501. Medical marijuana license cash fund. (1) ALL MONEYS COLLECTED BY THE STATE LICENSING AUTHORITY PURSUANT TO THIS ARTICLE SHALL BE TRANSMITTED TO THE STATE TREASURER, WHO SHALL CREDIT THE SAME TO THE MEDICAL MARIJUANA LICENSE CASH FUND, WHICH FUND IS HEREBY CREATED AND REFERRED TO IN THIS SECTION AS THE "FUND". THE MONEYS IN THE FUND SHALL BE SUBJECT TO ANNUAL APPROPRIATION BY THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY TO THE DEPARTMENT OF REVENUE FOR THE DIRECT AND INDIRECT COSTS ASSOCIATED WITH IMPLEMENTING THIS ARTICLE. ANY MONEYS IN THE FUND NOT EXPENDED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE MAY BE INVESTED BY THE STATE TREASURER AS PROVIDED BY LAW. ALL INTEREST AND INCOME DERIVED FROM THE INVESTMENT AND DEPOSIT OF MONEYS IN THE FUND SHALL BE CREDITED TO THE FUND. ANY UNEXPENDED AND UNENCUMBERED MONEYS REMAINING IN THE FUND AT THE END OF A FISCAL YEAR SHALL REMAIN IN THE FUND AND SHALL NOT BE CREDITED OR TRANSFERRED TO THE GENERAL FUND OR ANOTHER FUND.
Seems pretty straightforward -- and Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer doesn't dispute the language. But that doesn't mean the money is permanently off-limits to any use other than that pertaining to medical marijuana.
"As with all cash-funds transfers, it's contingent upon legislative approval to change that wording," he says. "But we have the ability to make the transfer if the legislature acts.
"This is essentially a proposal -- a plan we've submitted to the joint budget committee that they will review. Then it will go to the full legislature for a decision. And this is not unique to the medical marijuana fund. That language exists with all or most of the cash funds, and those types of transfers have helped us keep our budget balanced, along with spending cuts and eliminating programs and furloughs and reducing take-home pay. They've been one part of a larger strategy."
Moreover, Dreyer notes, the medical-marijuana fund has been used in precisely this way already: "We did it with the medical marijuana fund this year, when the legislature was in session. They approved a $3 million transfer" -- a move that received next-to-no publicity.
Such shifts would strike Kriho as problematic under any circumstances. But they're especially worrisome to her considering that "there are 70,000 license applications sitting on the shelf right now. Why can't we process the applications first and then see if there's any money left over? All these patients are waiting for their registry cards -- the wait is over nine months now. And somehow the registry has extra money to give to the state even though they can't do their own jobs correctly?"
In response, Dreyer says the delay in processing the cards "isn't a funding issue. The volume of applications has been so high that the department [of health] hasn't had the capacity to process all of them. So the department requested additional funding from the joint budget committee to hire dozens of more people to help eliminate the backlog, and that's underway. The transfer of funds is over and above what's necessary to implement the program and reduce the backlog."
The assertion that more money wouldn't speed up the process isn't compelling to Kriho, who feels such budget games violate the spirit of Amendment 20, the measure that legalized medical marijuana in Colorado -- specifically the line that reads, "The state health agency may determine and levy reasonable fees to pay for any direct or indirect administrative costs associated with its role in this program."
"This shows how the government really doesn't value the needs of the patients at all," she says, adding, "I hope someone challenges this in court."
Page down to read the Cannabis Therapy Insitute's release about the fund transfer: