(Seth A. McConnell, Denver Post file)

Caregiver pot-growing crackdown by legislators unlikely for now

DENVER—A legal loophole in Colorado’s marijuana law that allows people to grow hundreds of pot plants without going through background checks or paying taxes is likely staying—for now, legislators were told Tuesday.

Colorado lawmakers are unlikely to consider legislation cracking down on caregivers—the people authorized to grow pot on behalf of sick people—despite a January request from the heads of two Colorado agencies that oversee medical and recreational pot.

House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, a Democrat who decides which bills can be considered at this point in the session, said he won’t allow debate on the issue until medical marijuana caregivers and patients are consulted.

Caregivers have constitutional protection, making such debates thorny for lawmakers, Ferrandino told The Associated Press.

“Any time you’re trying to shrink or change the requirements of caregivers, it has a tendency to blow up in the Legislature,” he said.

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There are about 5,000 registered caregivers in Colorado, a holdover from the state medical marijuana law that preceded the legalization of recreational pot.

Those seeking caregiver designation don’t face the extensive background checks or fees required of those who grow or sell pot commercially. Colorado currently sets a five-patient cap on each caregiver, but waivers can be granted for more. And because some patients have authorization for a large number of pot plants, a handful of caregivers have significant growing operations.

The Legislative Audit Committee, a bipartisan committee that requested a caregiver bill, was told Tuesday that such a bill would be unlikely this session.

Republican Sen. Steve King, a member of that committee, said lawmakers shouldn’t wait to tackle the caregiver law. He called it “a loophole you could drive a truck through.”

Nonpartisan state auditor Dianne Ray told lawmakers the caregiver law is a way of circumventing taxes on pot. She called it “highly unusual” for a bill requested by the committee to fail with legislative leadership.

The agencies that asked for the caregiver law—the Department of Revenue, which oversees commercial pot, and the Department of Health & the Environment, which oversees the medical marijuana registry—did not immediately respond to questions about the legislative delay in considering the issue.

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CDPHE spokesman Mark Salley said his agency wants to “close the loophole” after an audit last year faulted the department for lax oversight of caregivers and physicians who recommend medical pot.

Salley did not say whether the agency planned to meet with caregivers and patients as Ferrandino requested.

Patient advocates cheered the delay.

“Realistically it’s not feasible for a lot of patients to grow their own or shop at dispensaries,” said Jason Warf, head of the Colorado Springs Medical Cannabis Council.

Warf uses a caregiver to produce oil to treat his chronic back pain and said he’s physically unable to garden. Shopping at a dispensary, he said, could cost him $4,000 a month. Warf and others suspect the caregiver proposal has an ulterior motive—steering more people to for-profit dispensaries.

“It would force patients into dispensaries, which would help the bottom line of owners,” Warf said.

However, the state’s top medical officer, Dr. Larry Wolk, told lawmakers in January that high-volume marijuana caregivers are violating the spirit of the law.

“I am fairly certain that doesn’t meet the definition of a caregiver,” Wolk said.


Kristen Wyatt can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt

This story was first published on DenverPost.com