Council rethinks its approach to marijuana

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Leland Rucker

Boulder City Council is considering broad changes to its marijuana rules and regulations. The first reading was Sept. 30, with a second reading scheduled for later this month or early November. And this time around, it appears that Council wants to help rather than hinder cannabis businesses.

The reconsideration began at the urging of Councilman Macon Cowles, who listed at least 40 “stress points” for cannabis businesses in a Hotline memo last month. He asked city staff to scrap Boulder’s current rules, conform to state regulations for operations and compliance and limit the City’s involvement to processing of applications and inspections. He also asked staff to provide a schedule of fines and an administrativereview process for challenges to fines and citations. The reasoning is that Boulder voted overwhelmingly for legal cannabis, and though the City took a hard approach at the outset, it needs to let these momand-pop businesses succeed by making regulations strict, clearly understood and fair.

Council members have been hearing from businesses and visiting some of the 77 cannabis facilities in town in recent months. Many owners have outlined difficulties following city and state laws when they conflict and who feel that some of the City rules seem capricious and arbitrary and put them at a business disadvantage. Cowles’ memo pointed out that Boulder is the only place in the state with rules that, for instance, don’t allow newspaper or magazine coupons from city businesses, require a physical separation between recreational and medical businesses in the same location and includes code language that indicates “zero tolerance” for offenses.

There was some initial pushback from staff, which replied in a memo that all current local rules are based on Council direction and argued that the extra measures have prevented or limited crime or otherwise made it safer for citizens.

Everybody remembered the circumstances under which the original rules were written. Amendment 64 dictated specific timelines, and Council took up the issue as the City and County were reeling from the aftermath of the September floods. Cannabis had been illegal for so long that there was still much suspicion about what legalization might bring.

Back then, I found the city attorney’s office inflexible and combative toward Council’s direction, but I didn’t see evidence of that this time. Both City Attorney Tom Carr and assistant Kathy Haddock seemed willing to look at regulation in a different light after two years. Most businesses work hard to stay compliant, Carr said. His office was afraid to be lenient at first — hence the “no tolerance” language — and he suggested that because he always looks at things from a regulatory and legal viewpoint, he might not be the best person to lead the effort for changes.

Council members asked many questions, about “zero tolerance,” using administrative hearings rather than the courts to contest fines, and staff ’s interpretation of merchandising, among other things. And during the public hearing, many operators provided more specific evidence of the problems they were having following two sets of regulations. It was obvious Council members were striving to understand the particulars of the regulations, and quite frankly, there was probably way too much there to adequately deal with in a long meeting.

In the end, some of the things that Cowles asked for were addressed by staff and will be inserted into the second reading language. But when Carr suggested a citizen’s committee be formed to study some of the others, everyone leapt at the opportunity. It was 10:30 p.m. before Council voted unanimously for the changes to the second reading.

It was really encouraging to see that both Council and staff are willing to take a second look at these regulations, change important ones like ending the grandfather clause to allow current businesses more time to convert from medical to recreational, striking the “zero tolerance” language and including the industry in further negotiations. And while I know Council is proud of its deliberative process, it’s disappointing that for many of the issues raised, it will be perhaps six months or more, and perhaps a new Council seated, before they are resolved.

Cowles gave Council a choice between a relatively easy way out and a more difficult one, and by punting many industry concerns to a focus group, Council took the latter. Not melding city and state code at this point means these kinds of issues will continue to come before and haunt Council, and the City will continue, in my humble opinion, to waste time and resources on something better left to more capable hands.

You can hear Leland discuss his most recent column and Colorado cannabis issues each Thursday morning on KGNU. http://news.kgnu.org/weed