DENVER • Medical marijuana may be one of Colorado's few booming industries these days, but proposals by Colorado lawmakers could change that.
The issue wasn't even on the Capitol's radar last session. Demand surged only after President Barack Obama's administration suggested enforcement would be a low priority in the states that allow people to use marijuana for medical purposes.
More than 200 dispensaries popped up in vacant storefronts. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws — NORML — declared Denver the nation's "cannabis capital" based on the number of dispensaries per capita. An estimated 30,000 people have applied to the state health department to use medical marijuana under the constitutional amendment Colorado voters passed in 2000.
The new legislative session begins Wednesday, and Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, said he'll introduce a bill to bar dispensaries from paying doctors for their referrals. Gov. Bill Ritter supports the measure.
If lawmakers can agree on that, Romer said he thinks it will close any dispensaries abusing the law.
There seems to be little agreement on much else. Facing opposition from dispensaries and some marijuana advocates, Romer isn't ready yet to push ahead with another proposal to create a licensing authority to weed out criminals from the industry and require dispensaries to report anyone who buys more than 2 ounces a week.
Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, plans to try to limit the number of people a medical marijuana caregiver can supply, an approach supported by Attorney General John Suthers and others in law enforcement. He's looking to other states, such as Hawaii and Oregon, where he says limits range from five to 10 people. That kind of rationing could shut down dispensaries and make caregiving a part-time job.
Last summer, the state health board rejected a five-person limit after hundreds of medical marijuana patients and dispensary owners packed a hearing.
Massey said he wants to make sure people who need medical marijuana get it. But he worries the proliferation of retail dispensaries is increasing demand.
"That's not where we want to go," Massey said.
With a budget shortfall of more than $1 billion, Massey said the state can't afford to heavily regulate the industry as Romer would like to do. Romer wants to limit dispensaries to 1,500 patients each and says criminal background checks could shut down half the dispensaries in Colorado.
Romer plans to back Massey's bill as a starting point even though he's concerned it would cut off people who legitimately need medical marijuana. With an estimated 30,000 people entitled to medical marijuana or in the process of being approved, he said a five or 10 patient limit would mean there would be thousands of people growing and supplying the drug across the state, making it even harder for law enforcement to keep up with.
Because of that, Romer said he's leaving the door open to add parts of his original proposal to the bill later.
Legislative leaders don't want marijuana to distract lawmakers from the urgent goals of balancing the budget and creating jobs.
"I don't see it as the most important issue," Senate President Brandon Shaffer said.
Colorado's law doesn't require any regulation of medical marijuana growers or dispensaries — they aren't mentioned in the amendment. It does cite conditions like cancer, multiple sclerosis and HIV, and general symptoms like muscle spasms and severe pain, as legitimate uses.
Suthers and Ritter say some dispensaries are working too closely with doctors who provide cursory medical evaluations.
"I would rather have legalization than have that widespread government-sanctioned hypocrisy," Suthers said.
Suthers points out that five doctors wrote the patient recommendations for half of the 14,377 registered users as of August, the latest figures available. Dispensary owners argue many doctors won't recommend medical marijuana because it still violates federal law.
Robert Corry, an attorney who has challenged previous efforts to limit the law, compares the furor to citizens who lie to get the pain reliever Oxycontin.
"I'm not sure what the hysteria is if a small number of people are indeed gaming the system," he said.