DENVER –- Washington made history this month when voters agreed to legalize recreational marijuana. A similar measure was approved in Colorado, where authorities already have been heavily regulating the medical-marijuana industry for about three years.
Washington has been hesitant to regulate businesses that grow and sell medical marijuana because the federal government still considers it a Schedule 1 drug with no medical benefits. But that did not stop Colorado from moving forward with strict regulations.
“It is, by far, the most comprehensive regulatory scheme, from my standpoint, in the world,” said Matt Cook, a former narcotics officer who helped write Colorado's laws.
When the process began, Cook initially struggled with the idea of regulating a drug he once fought -– even for medical uses.
“I will tell you, in 2009 when I was tasked with creating these rules, I didn’t believe it -– period,” he said.
But five months of intense, day-long meetings with law enforcement, the medical marijuana industry and regulators led to compromise.
Colorado's rules state that dispensaries must grow at least 70 percent of what they sell. Each plant is assigned to a patient and has a bar code so it can be monitored from seed to sale. And everything –- including the grow rooms, the doors in and out of the grow rooms, and the dispensary entryways -– is monitored by video cameras. Some growers invest anywhere from $60,000 to $80,000 in video equipment.
“It’s a web-based system that, ultimately, regulatory authorities can access at will,” Cook said. “They could be watching us right now.”
Norton Arbelaez, who started River Rock dispensary with just $200 and an idea nearly three years ago, approves of the regulations. His business, which resembles a high-end boutique, is flourishing. He employs 65 people, including horticulturists with Masters degrees who make up to $100,000 a year.
The power bill to keep everything growing totals $22,000 each month.
“It’s really a partnership that we have with the regulators in order to prove to the state of Colorado and to the country and to the world that there is a better option, and that option is regulation,” Arbelaez said.
To Curt Sampson, a patient who patronizes River Rock, the transparency is a welcome change.
“This, obviously, is a lot safer than trying to make a backdoor deal on the street, that’s for sure,” Sampson said.
The medical-marijuana industry continues to grow in Colorado with regulated sales this year expected to reach $200 million.
But there are still critics who point to one major problem.
“It’s a violation of law,” said Tom Gorman with the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a grant-funded program that works with law enforcement to go after drug-trafficking organizations.
He said he does not understand how the state can license people to break federal laws.
“You cannot have state employees or city employees or county employees aiding and abetting a criminal enterprise, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Gorman said.
He would rather see the drug prescribed through a pharmacy or state-run dispensary.
Federal fears have kept Washington from regulating medical-marijuana businesses the same way Colorado does. Denver attorney Brian Vicente, a leading advocate to regulate marijuana like alcohol, believes strong state rules in Colorado are keeping the federal government away.
“I would encourage Washington leaders to lead and not to wait for the federal government to do things in their state,” Vicente said.
Like Washington, Colorado is not sure what will happen next with recreational marijuana. Both states are currently talking with the federal government before moving forward.
Some Colorado businesses are already looking to expand. We’ll take you inside some of those places on KING 5 News at 11.