News analysis: City trying to sort out Amendment 64 issues

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Colorado took an unprecedented stance in the November election, legalizing recreational use of marijuana. City leaders still are working through many unanswered questions before the amendment goes into effect.

“At this point, there are still more questions than answers,” said City Attorney Chris Melcher, who will discuss options for regulations inside city limits at the Dec. 10 informal City Council meeting. “The biggest one is what the federal government plans to do.”

Marijuana remains a Schedule 1 controlled substance under federal law. Despite appeals from Gov. John Hickenlooper and Attorney General John Suthers, the U.S. justice department hasn’t responded to the Nov. 6 vote. Until it does, cities and counties must move toward implementing the new law — and that could mean new fees, licenses and marijuana bans.

That’s ground never covered before, Melcher said. “It’s just a morass of legal questions. We have to address city employees, public safety employees. I’m sure the public would find it unsettling if the police officers and firefighters were able to use marijuana.”

So Melcher and his staff are working to answer legal questions: What if people use marijuana in public? Could bars sell marijuana? What does “private use” entail?

“We have to figure out if people can use it in places like a cigar bar,” Melcher said. “It’s not clear if that’s legal use under the amendment. We have to figure out what to do if people are smoking on the streets or in the parks — that’s clearly not part of the law.”

Marijuana is still off-limits at state-supported colleges and universities. Students and faculty at University of Colorado institutions can’t use the drug on campus.

That’s because UCCS and other institutions have promised to take measures to ban the use of drugs and alcohol on campus in order to receive federal money — part of the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act Amendments of 1989.

City Councilor Tim Leigh is hoping for common-sense regulations that don’t harm the thriving medical marijuana industry.

“I hope anything we do doesn’t harm the people who are involved in selling medical marijuana,” he said. ‘We have to treat those people fairly.”

Leigh says he expects another rush of retail shops opening once the new law is fully in effect — much like the rush to open medical marijuana facilities in 2008.

“It was a gold rush then,” he said. “And we’ll just have to let market forces take over; that will hold the number down. Some stores are going to be casualties of the new law, but others will open.”

Leigh believes the city should use the same structure of licensing and fees it currently uses for medical marijuana facilities — with a difference.

“We’ve always tried to be revenue-neutral, charging just enough to manage the program itself,” he said. “I think we ought to structure the fees and licensing where we make a little bit of money for the general fund.”

As for city employees, Leigh says he’d be opposed to employees coming to work under the influence of marijuana. After that, each employer should come up with its own set of regulations.

“That’s up to individual businesses,” he said. “Is it going to be OK for their employees to smoke a little bit of pot over the weekend? Some jobs just won’t tolerate even that.”

However, even as the City Council creates its own rules and regulations, it is still subject to federal law, said Jan Martin, Council president pro tem and an Amendment 64 supporter.

“I’d like to see retail establishments for marijuana sales,” she said. “I supported the amendment. But so much of what we do it going to depend on what the state does, and what the state does is going to depend on what the federal government decides.”

So far, the silence from the federal government is deafening. Colorado isn’t the only state waiting — Washington also passed a law that will regulate recreational use of marijuana the same way it regulates alcohol. Gov. Christine Gregoire actually flew to D.C. in the days after the amendment passed there. She met with Justice Department officials — and left with no answers.

However, Seattle’s police department issued guidelines to the new state rules. In it, the department said it would not assist federal law enforcement in arresting people who grew, sold or possessed legal amounts of marijuana.

That might not be the case in Colorado Springs.

“We’re still looking at what the police department will have to do related to federal law,” Melcher said. “They’ve sworn to uphold city, state and federal law. That’s just another question we have to answer.”