'Medical' marijuana trade undermines voters' intent

By: The Gazette editorial
January 29, 2015 Updated: January 29, 2015 at 4:15 am
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photo - Medical marijuana dispensaries around Colorado Springs Tuesday, January 6, 2015. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette
Medical marijuana dispensaries around Colorado Springs Tuesday, January 6, 2015. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette 

If Colorado voters won't reverse their decision to create the world's most permissive marijuana environment, the Colorado Legislature should at least make the system work as promised.

Legal marijuana sales were supposed to generate big money for schools and snuff out the untaxed black market. Each promise has disappointed. Last year's taxes on pot generated little more than half what the governor's office anticipated. Meanwhile, the black market flourishes. Rather than paying for anti-drug education, marijuana sales taxes are funding commercials that encourage "safe" use of the drug.

Though commercialized recreational sales are creating a litany of challenges, the effort to regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol is undermined by the mostly farcical storefront medical marijuana trade. A state review of the medical marijuana code found substantial differences in the way medical and recreational sales are regulated and recommended reconciling the two. Regulators, the report stated, "must enforce two sets of standards on what amounts to a single industry."

Regular pot users who live in Colorado have found an easy way around the nearly 30 percent tax charged on recreational transactions. They pay a doctor - typically one who specializes in marijuana referrals - to write a note recommending the drug for pain or another medical claim. Then they proceed to buy "medical" marijuana, a substance identical to recreational pot, which is taxed at less than 3 percent. The savings in taxes alone is substantial. Throw in the savings that result from lax regulation and there's no reason anyone but tourists would routinely buy marijuana at a recreational store.

Those who aren't 18, the legal age for a license to buy medical pot, can easily buy the "medical" variety from people who buy and resell it. Even at a dealer's markup, the price for black market medical pot typically undermines the high-tax recreational variety. That creates incentive for pot users of all ages to patronize outlaw resellers.

Last year, the Marijuana Policy Group told CNN that only 60 percent of people buying pot in Colorado were doing so legally. The remainder were doing business with dealers who do nothing to support schools and other aspects of government.

"Some are likely procuring it under the table from medical marijuana patients who buy it on the up-and-up and then resell it illegally - depriving the state of tax revenue," CNN reported. "Plus, any Coloradan over 21 can grow up to six plants for personal use. If they are selling it on the black market, that's even more tax revenue the state's missing out on."

The Colorado Legislature is working to improve marijuana regulations. It should subject medical marijuana to the same "seed-to-sale" monitoring attached to production and sales of recreational pot. Legislators should also require tests for potency, homogeneity and contaminants that are required of recreational plants. And while they're at it, they should up the standards for obtaining a physician's recommendation and state license for the purchase of medical marijuana.

We can't have the system voters thought they approved if it must parallel an anything-goes "medical" trade that undermines efforts to tax and regulate. It's bad enough that Colorado has embarked on a recreational drug experiment with negative ramifications for youths. Let's not continue undermining any chance of constructive gain.

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