Colorado poised to be the first state to regulate pot sales

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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Against what looked like long odds at the beginning of the week, the Colorado state legislature passed several historic marijuana bills with time to spare on the last day of the lawmaking session Wednesday.

If signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper — as expected, although he has voiced his reservations about legalized pot in the past — Colorado will be the first state to officially regulate sales of the federally prohibited drug.

Among the new measures is a bill passed Tuesday that sets a stoned-driving limit of 5 nanograms of active THC per milliliter of blood, arguably the most contentious of the pot bills heard this year.

Lawmakers have tried six times over three years — including three times this year — to pass such a law. Opponents have said the limit is both arbitrary and a poor indicator of impairment, since marijuana affects people differently and chronic users can have elevated levels of THC even when they are perfectly sober.

The measure that finally succeeded is different from past attempts in that defendants who are over the limit aren’t automatically convicted of drugged-driving. Instead, juries can infer that they were impaired behind the wheel, but the defendant can present evidence to the contrary.

THC levels would be determined through a blood test after an officer decides through other ways — such as roadside sobriety tests — that a motorist is too stoned to drive. The test can be refused, but the motorist would risk losing his or her license.

On Wednesday, lawmakers also approved a regulatory framework for retail sales, dictating such things as licensing fees, product manufacturing standards and retail ownership requirements. Only Coloradans can operate pot shops and for the first nine months, only owners of existing medical marijuana dispensaries can apply to convert their businesses for retail.

The state Department of Revenue has until July 1 to draft the new regulations.

Finally, lawmakers also gave final passage to a taxing scheme that’s been the source of much drama lately. In November, voters will be asked to tax pot by a total of 25 percent — 15 percent of which is an excise tax and 10 percent being a special marijuana tax levied at the point of sale.

Because Colorado voters must approve all new taxes, lawmakers are worried that the measure will fail at the ballot box, meaning regulation and enforcement of the industry will have to be paid for from the state’s General Fund.

To avoid such a worst-case scenario, two-dozen senators supported a last-minute bid to ask voters to also strip retail sales from the state constitution if the tax measure fails. But facing a filibuster by opposing senators that would have run out the deadline to vote on the measure, Senate President John Morse never brought it to the floor.

Marijuana advocates applauded the legislators’ work, which was first mapped out by a special gubernatorial task force and then by a special legislative committee.

“The adoption of these bills is a truly historic milestone and brings Colorado one step closer to establishing the world’s first legal, regulated, and taxed marijuana market for adults,” said Mason Tvert, the communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project and the primary spokesman for Amendment 64, last year’s ballot measure that legalized recreational marijuana use for people 21 and older, in a statement.

“We are confident that this legislation will allow state and local officials to implement a comprehensive, robust, and sufficiently funded regulatory system that will effectively control marijuana in Colorado,” he said.

Of course, marijuana remains illegal in any amount for any reason under federal laws. The White House has never officially responded to Colorado’s historic vote and a similar one in Washington state.

In December, President Barack Obama said on “60 Minutes” that his administration has better things to do than bust pot smokers, but he didn’t mention industrial pot cultivation and sales.

At least one group has not forgotten marijuana’s prohibited federal status — a group of Colorado lawmen wrote to Hickenlooper last week about their concerns that legal pot will pose a hazard to public safety.

They also sent a copy of the letter to John Walsh, Colorado’s U.S. Attorney, who would prosecute anyone arrested for violating federal drug laws.

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