Colorado Works to Regulate, Legitimize Medical Marijuana

July 2, 2010
By Michael W. Savage
Washington Post

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.

Photo: Buds are weighed in a coconut shell as a custom blend is prepared at the medical marijuana dispensary Tender Healing Care in Denver. Barb Visher and Geoff Graehling, who own the establishment with another partner, say they work to make sure everything is done to the letter of the law. (Rob Mattson)

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," the 53-year-old said. "We will use a Web-based, 24-7 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 may 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, as well as the District, have been seeking advice.

Legislation passed by the D.C. Council in May permits the establishment of up to eight dispensaries. Virginia and Maryland do not permit medical marijuana use.

"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."

Photo: Tender Healing Care co-owner Geoff Graehling finds the correct buds to make a custom blend for a client of the medical marijuana dispensary in Denver. (Rob Mattson)

A drive down Denver's Federal Boulevard, an industrial stretch running through the inner city, illustrates why his expertise was needed. New dispensaries, with their marijuana-leaf signs, are providing the latest source of urban regeneration.

Denver and Colorado Springs could have as many as 500 dispensaries each, officials estimate. Dozens also have opened in Boulder.

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