Denver Future recreational marijuana shops in Colorado could be required to ask neighbors before opening their doors, under a legislative proposal announced Thursday.
The requirement would address one of the biggest complaints about current medical marijuana dispensaries — that neighbors don't always know they're coming. A House-Senate committee set up to recommend pot regulations is poised to suggest a statewide requirement that local governments hold public hearings before granting dispensary licenses.
The proposal would be similar to requirements for "needs and desires" hearings for liquor licenses. Neighbors should get the same courtesy before pot shops go in their backyards, said Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver.
"I think there's lot of folks who will embrace these establishments, other folks who may not be so keen on them. And so this gives the public an opportunity to opine," said Pabon, who leads the ad-hoc marijuana committee.
A marijuana industry group at the hearing didn't have an immediate reaction to the idea. But a dispensary owner who attended the meeting feared the "needs and desires" hearings would attract only pot opponents who don't want to see dispensaries anywhere.
Bruce Granger, owner of Kind Love dispensary in Glendale, feared the hearings would turn into venting sessions for marijuana critics. He argued that alcohol "needs and desires" hearings are lightly attended, and that local governments routinely sign off on entertainment districts with bar after bar.
"Alcohol is so pervasive and accepted in our society that no one really cares," Granger said. Marijuana hearings, he feared, would be different — at least at first.
"We really have to see how this whole thing goes," Granger said.
The Colorado Municipal League also was skeptical. The group generally opposes state mandates on local governments, and took issue with required "needs and desires" hearings even if the legislation allows local governments to opt out.
"Let local governments and their citizens best determine how to deal with local licensing issues," Kevin Bommer, the league's deputy director, said in an email Thursday.
The particulars of the neighborhood hearing requirement haven't been announced. The legislative pot committee planned to work through the weekend to finish proposals on how marijuana should be regulated.
Lawmakers still haven't decided how highly pot should be taxed, one of the biggest items still under debate. Pot taxes need to be high enough to pay for regulation and efforts to keep pot away from people under 21. But if marijuana sales taxes are too high, pot users warn they'll stay in the black market, where no taxes are collected.
Several lawmakers have said taxes should be lower than a 75 percent excise tax mandated in Washington state, the only other place with legal weed. Colorado's marijuana excise tax is capped at 15 percent. State sales taxes add 2.9 percent, with lawmakers still debating an additional pot sales tax.
"What is the right amount so we don't encourage diversion into the black market?" asked Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont.
Voters would make the final call on tax rates because of the state's Taxpayers' Bill of Rights.
The marijuana committee also talked about how closely marijuana shops should be regulated, given problems enforcing current regulations on medical pot shops.
Recreational marijuana will be regulated by the Department of Revenue, which sent representatives Thursday to assure lawmakers they're ready for the job.
The agency was trying to reassure lawmakers upset by an audit report last week that blasted its Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division. The audit said the division wasted money on cars and expensive office furniture, then ran out of funds to pay for seed-to-sale tracking promised under a law passed a couple years ago. The Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division also has been plagued by layoffs and a huge backlog of pending marijuana licenses.
The head of the Department of Revenue, Barbara Brohl, said the agency is ready for a crush of new work when recreational sales begin next year. But she cautioned lawmakers that they need to make sure division has the money it needs to inspect pot shops and process applications in a timely manner.