DENVER Nearly a fifth of Colorados medical marijuana dispensary operators could be forced out of business in coming weeks because of new state rules barring some convicted felons from the pot business, federal drug authorities say.
The Drug Enforcement Administration reviewed requirements under a new state law to see how many felons could be forced out of business. The DEA estimates that up to 18 percent of current dispensaries may be shuttered by the no-felon rule.
Durango city officials were unaware Thursday of any business owners who operate medical marijuana centers or grow operations with felony convictions. The same was true for La Plata County, which has a moratorium in effect for new medical marijuana businesses.
After years of leaving marijuana rules mostly to local officials, the Colorado Legislature this year required medical marijuana centers to apply for state licenses by Sunday, an effort to bring some regulation to the states anything-goes medical marijuana industry.
To get a license, dispensary owners have to pay hefty fees ranging from $7,500 to $18,000 and show that they havent been convicted of felonies in the last five years. Owners with felony drug convictions face a lifetime ban from the business.
Durango requires background checks for anyone proposing to open a medical marijuana business in the city, said City Manager Ron LeBlanc. He was unsure how extensive that background check is for example, if it is a state background check or a nationwide background check. It is the same one done for anyone seeking a liquor license, he said.
I dont know of any that are felons, he said.
LeBlanc was unsure what would have happened if a background check revealed a felony in someones past.
If something like that came up, we would have had a little staff meeting ... to determine what our options would be, he said.
La Plata County is in the process of developing a land-use permitting process for medical marijuana businesses and subsequently a business licensing program. There are grow operations in the county, but county officials are unsure how many, because they werent required to obtain permits if they were under 800 square feet in size, said County Manager Shawn Nau.
The new state law requires a dual permitting process, whereby all medical marijuana businesses must register with the state. And felons are precluded from such businesses.
The felony figures, first reported by KUSA-TV, bear out officials fears that former drug dealers and drug users have flocked to Colorados nascent medical marijuana industry, made legal under a 2000 amendment to the state constitution. Including less serious crimes, the DEA says about 28 percent of pot shop owners have criminal records for drug offenses.
Theres people who are in the marijuana business strictly to make a profit and not what was portrayed to the voters, which was care for very sick and imminently dying people, said Kevin Merrill, assistant special agent in charge for the Denver field division of the DEA.
Marijuana advocates say the no-felony rule likely just will drive affected pot sellers back to the black market.
Im sure there are places that are going to close their doors, and whats sad is that a lot of people are just going to go back to the underground market, and that means no taxes to the state, no quality control over the marijuana product, said Danyel Joffe, a Denver lawyer who represents medical marijuana growers and sellers.