(Andy Cross, Denver Post file)

A slowdown for Colorado lawmakers on pot rules, but eyes on MMJ review

The strides in regulating Colorado’s burgeoning marijuana industry look more like baby steps through the first quarter of the legislative session.

In 2014, legislators took up 31 bills that dealt directly with marijuana. Last year’s session produced a law that authorized a banking services cooperative for pot businesses that big banks won’t serve, and another that created sweeping changes on how potent edible pot products can be and how they are labeled.

But since this year’s session began on Jan. 7, only eight bills dealing specifically with marijuana have been introduced, and two have already been killed in committees. Another was withdrawn for bipartisan work. Though that’s the same number that had been filed at this point a year ago, no one who closely follows the issue expects major moves this session.

Legislators and lobbyists who most often deal with marijuana issues say regulation has hit a plateau that requires more time and data to see which are the real problems and which are conjecture.

“I don’t know if there are any really big bills coming,” said Michael Elliott, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, an influential lobbying arm for many of the state’s pot businesses. “I think we’re down to the nuanced stuff.”

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The most watched bill so far appears to be the reauthorization of Colorado’s medical marijuana rules, which have a sunset provision that would cause them to expire in July.

While it’s unlikely the rules would go away, legislators could use the opportunity to make other changes.

Lawmakers have voiced concerns in hearings that some people are getting medical marijuana licenses to avoid taxes that apply to recreational pot, but no one has yet unveiled a remedy for tax evaders.

Another bill would toughen registration requirements on marijuana caregivers — those who grow pot for patients.
Supporters say the legislation would help law enforcement more easily spot those who might be growing for the black market using the camouflage of caring for patients.

Jeanne Pratt, a medical marijuana activist from Lakewood, has been attending legislative hearings on pot for six years and said this session, so far, seemed to be the “most boring.”

“They’ve picked all the low-hanging fruit the past two years, and now they’re trying to figure out what to meddle in next,” she said.

Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, who has been the Democratic point man on pot, said the slowdown represented a more thoughtful approach.

Singer sponsored legislation last year that resulted in the restrictions on edibles — cookies, candies and other products that could have been mistaken for the sober version — that took effect Feb. 1.

Singer and pot lobbyists were concerned last week about a bill Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, has introduced to move authority over labeling from the Department of Revenue to the legislature.

Opponents say it would nullify the rules that were passed last year, since they are overseen by the Department of Revenue, and would make managing the future labeling issues cumbersome because they could be shaped only during the busy four months of the legislative session.

Hill called that “hyperbole and an inappropriate reading of the bill.”

He said the Department of Revenue faces a Jan. 1 deadline for new rules and that moving rule-making back to the legislature buys more time.

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A Republican bill to warn women that using pot while pregnant could endanger their babies was scrapped during a House committee this week, when it was evident it didn’t have the votes to pass as it was written. Democrats vowed to work with the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jack Tate, R-Centennial, to make it more specific.

“It was really opening the door to relitigate even things like abortion,” said Singer, who opposed it. “Well, it had the word fetus in there.”

Rep. Tim Dore of Elizabeth, viewed as pot’s hawk for the Republicans, said marijuana isn’t a true partisan issue, and lobbyists say there are nearly as many Democrats who take a stern view as those who are more liberal, while there are libertarian-leaning Republicans who see it as a free-market issue.

Dore saw his bill to create a grant program with 30 percent of the pot revenue to help 46 rural counties killed in committee.

Representatives of larger, urban counties wanted their districts to get a cut of the grant money, too, while state agencies testified that losing 30 percent off the top would cripple current and future statewide programs.

“We’ve been given the task as a legislative body to address this,” Dore said of pot’s impacts. “How we address it? That takes a healthy debate.”

Joey Bunch: 303-954-1174, jbunch@denverpost.com or twitter.com/joeybunch

This story was first published on DenverPost.com