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" of the safest therapeutically active substances known...."
DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young, 1988

Santa Cruz Sentinel

By Kurtis Alexander

2010 was the year of medical pot.

Sure, California's Compassionate Use Act technically allowed the sick to smoke marijuana 14 years ago and plenty have done just that. But only this year did leaders in Santa Cruz County give the drug the official OK.

In recent months, both the city of Santa Cruz and the county introduced policies permitting marijuana sales, under certain conditions, of course. While the issue of medical pot was long dodged by local lawmakers -- largely because of the drug's murky legal standing with a federal prohibition -- an Obama administration decision not to crack down gave rise to a number of dispensaries, all but forcing leaders to action.

"It only makes sense that they're regulated," said Christina Horvat, manager of the Boulder Creek Recreation and Park District, which caters to young children. "They need to consider the placement of them, for sure. Parents might not want to have their kids around the drug."

When a medical marijuana shop opened across the street from the Boulder Creek Community Rec Center late last year, Horvat had to answer to several angry parents.

Similar complaints have emerged elsewhere in the county as the industry has grown from a handful of shadowy mom-and-pop ventures to nearly a dozen recognized retailers. One dispensary garnered national attention when it opened this summer in Soquel selling marijuana-laced ice cream, like Banannabis Foster.

In September, the county Board of Supervisors responded to the uptick with a moratorium on new shops until standards, which planners are now finalizing, can be enacted. The dispensaries were technically illegal before the moratorium, but supervisors acknowledged this was bad policy and have permitted the retailers to stand.

"The county and the Planning Department had its head in the sand on how to deal with this for many years," said Supervisor John Leopold, who initiated the county's regulatory efforts. "The community supports access for marijuana. Rather than trying to close every one, we should develop rules and bring order out of chaos."

The city of Santa Cruz, the other jurisdiction that allows medical marijuana dispensaries in the county, came by its policy in similar fashion. After two retailers opened in the Harvey West area, the city capped the number that would be allowed -- at two -- and put in place regulations to ensure safe distribution.

"We were already doing a lot of what they asked for," said Scott Wade, the security director at Greenway Compassionate Relief, one of the two dispensaries that won city permission to operate.

Despite initial concerns that the city's quota might allow the trade to be monopolized, Wade says the rise of other dispensaries outside city limits, and his drop in business, has shown that two outlets is plenty.

The county, which expects to finalize its regulations early next year, has said it will not set quotas. Instead, the rules will dictate such matters as where the dispensaries can open, like away from schools, and how the marijuana is sold, like requiring labeling and safety testing. The working draft also calls for reduced marijuana prices for the poor.

Per state law, the dispensaries all operate as collectives, where only members buy and grow the drug.

In addition to regulation, the industry faced the possibility of another shake-up this year when Proposition 19, on the November ballot, proposed legalizing marijuana not just for medical use but recreation. The measure failed by a seven-point margin.

If Colorado was allowed to treat marijuana like alcohol — or any other medicine, for that matter — pot dispensaries could freely set up business bank accounts without fear of federal prosecution and marijuana could, like corn and wheat, be grown openly in national forests.

This is according to U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Boulder Democrat, who said he plans to push a law in the new Congress that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level so that states with medicinal laws on the books, like Colorado, could treat it as they wish.

Under Polis' structure, marijuana laws would be extremely local — similar to states that have so-called dry, alcohol- free counties.

"It's not in the federal government's realm," Polis said. "I'm proud of Colorado being a pioneer in this regard and setting up a regulatory structure. We've benefited in tax revenues and I think it's dealt a big blow to criminalize it."

The Obama administration has urged federal prosecutors' tolerance in prosecuting pot possession in the more than a dozen states that have medical-marijuana laws on the books.

But Polis continues to push full decriminalization in case future administrations — and federal Drug Enforcement Agency chiefs — may not be so friendly.

He also believes that a law protecting states means banks would be more comfortable setting up interstate accounts with pot dispensaries.

In August, Wells Fargo & Co. said it was going to stop handling marijuana-dispensary accounts because of federal laws.

Though other banks will take the accounts, Polis wants dispensaries to have a choice.

Polis has supporters in the libertarian movement, who believe that legalizing marijuana would be kind to already- clogged courts and, perhaps, cause less havoc because people "are a lot less danger to themselves and society when they are smoking marijuana than when they drink too much alcohol," said David Kopel, an adjunct law professor at the University of Denver.

"Marijuana was legal from the time when the pilgrims showed up through the 1930s, and the country grew from humble beginnings to a world superpower with legal marijuana," Kopel said. "I think it's a waste of criminal justice resources," to prosecute pot cases.

But former U.S. Attorney Troy Eid has a different opinion. He is not in favor of full decriminiliazation but respects voters' approval of a medical-marijuana laws. He wants to see it put through a clinical trial like other drugs.

"With all due respect, we just don't know the pros and cons of marijuana as medicine from a scientific perspective," said Eid, now a private attorney. "It's very important we have a dispassionate conversation about this. Voters have said they want medicine. We should treat it like medicine."

Polis plans to push his proposed law in Washington early this year, though its prospects in a Republican-controlled House appear to be dim.

Plans are underway to get a pot legalization ballot measure on Colorado's 2012 ballot (a similar measure failed in 2006).

"Every state should be able to take this issue on its own," said Mason Tvert, executive director of SAFER Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation, which is working on fundraising for the ballot measure.

Tvert said the rumored help from Democratic billionaire George Soros was not true, but "if whoever is saying that wants to put us in touch, that would be wonderful."

Allison Sherry: 303-954-1377 or