(Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post file)

Colorado medical marijuana: Plant counts added to caregiver debate

DENVER (AP) — A week before Colorado’s health department considers new limits on medical marijuana growers, a panel of lawmakers and regulators debated Monday whether the numbers of plants those growers can raise should be curbed too.

The panel took no action Monday on a proposed bill relating to new limits on the state’s medical marijuana framework, deemed a “gray market” of untaxed commerce by some but difficult to tweak because it is enshrined in the state constitution.

The Colorado Board of Health meets Sept. 16 to consider capping caregivers to 10 patients. Caregivers are currently limited to five patients, though some get waivers to serve many more.

The proposed bill considered Monday would also make it harder for marijuana patients to get medical permission for more than six plants. The “extended plant count” exception is seen as another loophole allowing a few medical marijuana patients to have large quantities.

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Patients under the proposed bill would need recommendations from two doctors, not one, before getting permission for more than six plants.

But curbing those “extended plant count” exceptions won’t be easy, warned Karin McGowan, deputy executive director of the Colorado Department of Health and the Environment, which oversees the medical marijuana program.

“I think we’re all grappling with, how do we prove medical necessity? How many plants to you need to create tinctures and oils and all these other kinds of treatments that are being developed every day?” McGowan said.

Colorado voters approved medical marijuana in 2000, and the program was left intact after recreational pot was adopted in 2012. Some believed the medical pot framework of designating caregivers would fade after full legalization, but instead the medical registry has thrived.

Some say pot smokers are abusing the medical registry to avoid the much higher taxes put on recreational pot. And pot growers who serve only medical patients face little regulation compared with their commercial counterparts.

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A July report on Colorado’s marijuana market concluded that a “significant portion” of the state’s pot market is being filled by those medical caregivers. The report concluded that medical growers and patients contribute to a thriving “gray market,” meaning the pot was grown legally but then illegally sold or shared.

McGowan conceded that Colorado has little research to back up any hard limit on extended plant counts.

“There are no definitive studies one way or another” about how many plants certain conditions require, she said.

Lawmakers also declined to endorse a separate legislative proposal to make it easier for local governments to collect excise taxes on pot, not just sales taxes.

Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace testified that his county has a small retail pot market but a thriving market for pot growers.

“We have no legal or statutory way to collect revenue from all the grows that have been popping up in our community,” Pace said.

The panel — called the Use of Recreational Marijuana Sales Tax Revenues Interim Study Committee — meets again at the end of the month to decide whether to suggest legislation for next session.


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