Is it really this hard to come up with retail cannabis rules and regs?

Marijuana rules are more complicated than they need to be.

The city is now close to passing rules and regulations that will govern the sale of retail cannabis in Boulder. A revised set of staff recommendations returns to City Council this Tuesday, Nov. 12, for a “second” third reading. That follows an often tense “first” third reading of the proposed rules on Oct. 29.

Proponents of retail sales, both business owners and potential customers, are frustrated with the delays in implementation of Amendment 64, the “regulate marijuana like alcohol” law supported by a large majority of Boulder voters in the 2012 election which allows legal state retail sales beginning Jan. 1. (As of this moment, Boulder will begin processing retail licenses in March of 2014.)

Some of the contention was time-related: The September floods pushed the cannabis issue into October. Current members wanted to get these rules in place before a new council is seated on Nov. 19, which put even more time constraints on crafting strong, fair regulations.

Still, after more than three hours of questions, answers, public comment and council-staff discussion, it appeared that most council members were generally in favor of rules that tightly regulate marijuana like alcohol and still allow businesses the chance to be successful. That attitude seemed at odds with many staff proposals.

The need for strong rules and regulations isn’t in question — Amendment 64 mandates it, and the federal government is watching Colorado carefully for missteps. But I share the frustration of business owners investing in a new market under rules that shift like sand. Does it really have to be this hard?

Boulder has done an admirable job of regulating medical marijuana since shops opened in 2009. City Attorney Tom Carr said during the meeting that the biggest problems the city has faced with MMJ were odor violations, and that businesses have complied with the city in all cases after notification. That staff has managed this within budget constraints is highly commendable and speaks well of the city’s regulatory system as a whole.

But I wasn’t the only one at the meeting shaking my head at many of the recommendations presented to council. During public comment, several owners outlined the problems some of the proposals might have on their ability to do business. Council members were definitely listening, following up and asking questions about proposed regs that, for instance, didn’t allow grandfathering existing businesses that want to convert to a dual retail/medical license in the same location, sought to seriously punish growers for odor violations and limited plant numbers in grow operations.

The main question that wasn’t addressed is why, since the state already has a set of rules and regulations in place and intends to employ its own system to track cannabis from seed to sale, Boulder has to be involved in every aspect of marijuana cultivation and sales too?

Staff mentioned several times that legalization puts increased pressure on city personnel. That’s completely understandable and worthy of discussion. The city licensing office seems particularly overworked and understaffed.

But when the city a) took in revenues of $700,000 last year from medical marijuana b) will be sharing state tax revenues with other cities allowing retail c) will receive the obligatory 3.41 percent city sales taxes on marijuana and d) saw passage of Issue 2A and will begin taxing marijuana far beyond state levels, with some of that revenue destined for the city’s general fund, the argument sounded disingenuous at best. To imagine that the city can’t hire staff to handle the load for a class of new, legal consumer businesses that will bring the city revenue, prestige and visitors seems ridiculous.

The weirdest suggestions had to do with grow operations. A second odor violation would be punished by destroying part of the crop and only allowing the grower 500 plants for five years. (This was after council asked for a revision from the original suggestion that would revoke the business license after a second violation.) Carr argued that was a “disincentive,” but councilman Macon Cowles pointed out that, for businesses, it was closer to “a sword of Damocles.”

Another staff suggestion was that grow operations require six-foot-wide aisles between plants and an eight-foot restriction on planting beds so that inspectors could count the plants more easily. During public discussion, a grower explained that you can easily determine the number of plants by counting the lights used, since one light will nurture only a given number of plants, but that didn’t stop an almost comical council-staff discussion about how much room was needed for an inspector to walk between planting beds. (The final decision was three feet.)

Meetings like this are negotiations, and when they’re conducted in public, they aren’t always pretty. But I sat on a city board for five years and have attended many council meetings, and I’ve never seen as much staff pushback on any other issue. The disconnect between the city attorneys and council was at times palpable, enough so that Cowles, who had more questions than anyone during the meeting, cleared the air by thanking staff for its hard work on the issue through the city hotline a couple days after the meeting.

Cowles is right. Staff and council members have put a lot of work into this issue. But if the medical marijuana system has been working, why are we futzing around with all this? We’re not reinventing the wheel here.

Send tips, suggestions and criticisms to