Academics and Research / News

Grass Confusion: DU symposium tackles tangled marijuana laws

The level of confusion over marijuana laws in Colorado and the nation is high.

As experts gathered at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law Jan. 27 for an all-day symposium, “Marijuana at the Crossroads,” the assembled attorneys, faculty and law students heard just how difficult it has become to navigate the legal mire surrounding the drug.

Colorado voters legalized medical marijuana by constitutional amendment in 2000. The industry exploded in 2008 when the Obama administration indicated that it would not actively pursue medical marijuana providers who were in compliance with state law. A new voter initiative is proposed for the state ballot this year that could legalize marijuana and regulate its sale like alcohol.

“We’re in a very interesting place right now,” said Brian Vicente, an attorney active in the marijuana regulation debate and chair of the National Cannabis Industry Association. “This is an issue where we are seeing major changes in our lifetime.”

Despite Colorado’s voters allowing medical marijuana sales and use, and despite a complex and comprehensive set of state regulations and licensing, former U.S. Attorney Troy Eid told the audience that marijuana is still illegal in the United States, and that anyone involved in the sale or use of the drug risks losing their property and their freedom.

“It really is not a good thing for you, as lawyers and law students, to buy into this crap that it is not illegal,” he said. “You need to know better.”

Eid said that maybe it’s time for Congress to address the issue, but until the government changes the law, it is illegal to possess or sell it.

“We still have an obligation in this country to follow the law,” he said.

It’s the conflict between various state and federal laws that make operating in a gray area so difficult for medical marijuana users and dispensaries, said Jill Lamoureux-Leigh (MBA ’99), an entrepreneur who runs three dispensaries licensed in Colorado.

“What’s next? We don’t know,” she said. “It’s too difficult to keep jumping these hurdles.”

Lamoureux-Leigh said her industry is a tough one. Cities can regulate zoning, the federal government can enforce some laws and not others, and the state requires huge amounts of data from each employee and investor, as well as “seed to sale” video surveillance of the entire operation. And with increasing competition bringing down the price for both legal and black-market marijuana, it has become increasingly difficult just to break even.

As an added challenge, she said, the threat of federal intervention has kept banks from allowing dispensaries to borrow money or open accounts, meaning that much of the industry faces the prospect of paying cash for everything, including taxes that the IRS demands – even if the federal government won’t acknowledge the sale of marijuana as a legal business.

Matt Cook, retired head of the Colorado Department of Revenue’s Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division, acknowledged that the state has “the most complex regulatory system in the United States” for marijuana. But he said such safeguards were carefully developed and based in part on measures used to oversee other industries such as casino operation and horse tracks.

Law School Dean Martin Katz credited the Denver University Law Review and the law school’s Constitutional Rights & Remedies Program for creating the symposium, which included sessions on issues marijuana laws pose for practicing attorneys, how the issue raises constitutional challenges and the legal ethics of working with clients who sell or use medical marijuana.

“This is exactly the type of thing we like to do at the law school,” Katz said. “Get people together, put our heads together and discuss and debate the issues of the day.”

Law Professor Sam Kamin, who studies the issue and delivered the keynote address, said there is a growing uncertainty about marijuana laws that must be clarified in coming years. Currently, he said, the federal government seems to be moving ahead with a slow crackdown, selectively enforcing laws such as challenging legal dispensaries that violate federal laws against delivering drugs within 1,000 feet of a school.

But the issue, he said, is far from resolved and the future is far from certain. As more states allow for medical marijuana, politicians in Washington may feel pressured to order the drug reclassified and relax rules on medical sales. Only one thing is certain, and that is that nothing is certain, he said.

“This is an area of law that is changing not only day by day, but minute by minute,” he said. “It’s hard to describe what’s going on.”





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