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Colo. tests tools to tame medical marijuana trade

Official hopes fees, monitoring curb rapid proliferation

By Michael W. Savage
Washington Post / August 5, 2010

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DENVER — When Matt Cook was coaxed out of early retirement to become Colorado’s chief revenue enforcer three years ago, he assumed his time would be spent overseeing the casinos, liquor stores, and car dealerships he had been keeping an eye on for much of his career.

If he had hoped for a quiet few years before heading for the golf course, his timing could not have been worse.

Cook, senior director of enforcement at Colorado’s Department of Revenue, returned just as a new kind of business rolled into town promoting a controversial product. Medical marijuana was legalized a decade ago in the state, but retail-style dispensaries began springing up only in 2007.

The trickle of new outlets has turned into a flood. Officials think more than 1,100 dispensaries are operating statewide. As the numbers grew, dispensaries offered ever-more cannabis strains, marijuana-infused products, and delivery services.

When alarmed lawmakers decided they wanted to curb the burgeoning industry, all eyes turned to Cook. “It was last Christmas that I saw this was heading our way,’’ he said. “Merry Christmas.’’

Relatively late in his career, Cook has become a pioneer in the medical marijuana industry, drawing up a stringent regulation scheme that aims to turn the industry into a legitimate — and respectable — enterprise.

“We plan to track the entire commodity from seed to sale,’’ said Cook, 53. “We will use a Web-based, 24-seven video surveillance system, and we will see virtually everything from the time a seed goes into the ground to the time the plants are harvested, cultivated, processed, packaged, stored.’’

The regime could be copied by the 13 other states that already have legalized medical marijuana and the 14 additional states that could soon allow its use. Cook’s counterparts in other states have been seeking advice.

“I didn’t find tough regulatory schemes out in any of the other states,’’ Cook said. “The numbers of dispensaries they have are very limited. It is the most intensive period of work I have had at any point in my career.’’

Denver and Colorado Springs could have as many as 500 dispensaries each, officials estimate. And dozens have opened in Boulder. But the new regulations have stopped the boom and are widely expected to cut the number of outlets significantly. No new dispensaries can be opened until next summer. Existing owners wanting to remain in business had to apply for a license by the beginning of this week.

Anyone wanting a license had to fill out a 22-page form detailing immediate family and personal financial history. People with drug-related felonies were disqualified.

In the first year, even the smallest dispensaries must hand over at least $7,500 for a license, while bigger operations will have to find as much as $18,000 to stay in business.

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