In the final days of the 2015 legislative session, Gov. John Hickenlooper's office asked for a $300,000 earmark to fund a crackdown on toxic pesticides being used in legal marijuana grows in Colorado.
It was a last-minute scramble in response to a very real health and safety issue associated with the state's burgeoning recreational pot industry. And it typifies the frenetic frenzy with which lawmakers have attempted to get a handle on pot since voters opened the door to recreational marijuana stores in 2012.
"It's been pretty vexing. We've made headway more rapidly than we thought," Hickenlooper said. "It's hard to take something that's never been done before from scratch and create a regulatory framework."
More than 30 bills were introduced during the 2015 legislative session dealing with marijuana or hemp. Twelve became law.
"The Legislature is going to pass a dozen marijuana bills a year, here for the foreseeable future, just as we continue to tinker with this and address some of the loopholes and problems we discover along the way," said Sen. Pat Steadman, the sponsor of several pot regulation and tax bills. "But it's getting better all the time. Most people you talk to will say, 'I'm surprised it's going so well.'"
One loophole lawmakers closed this year was allowing existing medical marijuana growers to do a one-time transfer of plants to the recreational industry without paying excise taxes on the products.
Steadman's House Bill 1387 allows medical marijuana shops to transition to recreational, but if they do, the plants will be subject to the 15 percent excise tax on recreational marijuana.
The state has a long way to go.
It is still working out the details of the medical marijuana market that was legalized in 2000 and saw a mass opening of dispensaries in 2010 after a licensing system was created.
The biggest pot bill of the 2015 session was Senate Bill 14, a crackdown on medical marijuana providers who cropped up around the state after 2000.
Caregivers dispensed marijuana in Colorado before licensed dispensaries opened and they have continued to grow plants to serve patients.
Operation "Golden Go-fer" shed light on a drug trafficking scheme that hid behind the caregiver laws to grow hundreds of plants and fly pot out of state on skydiving planes that returned with millions of dollars.
"It created a way for law enforcement to know who is a legitimate caregiver providing legitimate caregiving services to medical marijuana patients and who is lying about that fact in order to ship marijuana out of state or sell it on the black market," said Skyler McKinley, deputy director of the governor's Office of Marijuana Coordination. "Before this bill, law enforcement has had a tough time. Someone will claim they are a caregiver and there is no intuitive way to verify that."
The bill not only establishes a caregiver registry, it also establishes a 99-plant limit on caregivers. If caregivers want to grow more than that number of plants they must become a licensed medical marijuana provider.
At least one marijuana industry group is threatening a lawsuit over the law, saying it's unconstitutional to set a limit on how many plants a caregiver can provide.
The state is also trying to clamp down on out-of-state diversions in other ways.
Hickenlooper requested in his budget funding for a marijuana black market intelligence analyst to work in the Department of Public Safety. That position was funded in the state 2015-16 budget, and the position will be filled after June 30.
"A lot of this is catching up with what's been going on," said Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.
He pointed out that the intelligence position will work to stop out-of-state diversions of marijuana, an issue that is the subject of a lawsuit against Colorado brought by Nebraska and Oklahoma in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lambert said the $300,000 expenditure for testing of pesticides shows that the state is struggling with regulation in the wake of Amendments 20 and 64.
Additional funding for product testing within the Department of Agriculture was prompted in part by the discovery by the Denver Health Department that 12 grow facilities may have used inappropriate pesticides or chemicals on plants intended for consumption. Dan Rowland, spokesman for the City of Denver, said that based on complaints, the health department inspected grows and found reasons to warrant testing for chemicals. The 12 facilities had their plants placed in quarantine pending the outcome of those tests. The Department of Agriculture only tests marijuana for contaminants when there has been a complaint.
Expanded funding for testing and other marijuana-related government expenses were intended to be paid for by taxes voters approved on the industry.
The state is expected to collect $58 million during the 2014-15 fiscal year, but may have to return that money to taxpayers if voters don't approve a ballot question in November.
Hickenlooper signed a bill Thursday to spend millions of dollars on programs to promote responsible use of marijuana, train police to detect high drivers and discourage use among Colorado's youths.
"I think we're going to keep improving this in terms of how we address edibles, how we address underage kids getting access to marijuana, how do we monitor driving while under the influence," Hickenlooper said. "There are a number of places where we've got a lot of great work done and made great progress, but there's still a lot of work to do."
Contact Megan Schrader: 286-0644