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Parents, police worry marijuana dispensaries confuse kids

— Parent Julie Carta is concerned that the opening of medical marijuana dispensaries in Steamboat Springs sends a confusing message to children.

Since August, three dispensaries have begun offering medical marijuana to registered patients. The city instituted a moratorium, providing time to draft a policy that allowed it to regulate the businesses.

On Jan. 5, the City Council adopted an ordinance that allows two for-profit dispensaries and one cooperative to operate in Steamboat. They are D and C Medical Marijuana and Therapeutic Massage, 410 S. Lincoln Ave.; Rocky Mount­ain Remedies, 2750 Downhill Plaza; and Natural Choice Co-op, 1169 Hilltop Parkway.

That doesn't sit well with Carta, whose 13-year-old son is a seventh-grader at Steamboat Springs Middle School.

"I think it's a farce," she said. "I think it's going to make it a lot easier for people to get marijuana. It's still a drug. It's still illegal."

Carta said she thinks it's confusing for kids that licensed patients can legally obtain an illegal drug.

Passage of Colorado's Amend­ment 20 in 2001 made medical marijuana use legal with restrictions and a doctor's recommendation.

The city's ordinance stipulates that dispensaries operate in commercial or industrial areas, be at least 500 feet from a school and not have signage that advertises the availability of marijuana.

Drug education

Since Routt County Sheriff Gary Wall discontinued the county's D.A.R.E. program in June 2006, only the Hayden School District has a D.A.R.E. program. D.A.R.E. stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education.

Hayden Police Chief Ray Birch said grant funding allows part-time officer Storm Fallon to teach D.A.R.E. classes every Tuesday at Hayden Valley Elem­entary School. He said Fallon, who recently joined the department after 15 years as an officer in Craig, taught D.A.R.E. classes there.

Birch said Hayden also participates in Red Ribbon Week, a national drug prevention program typically held the last week in October. Birch said students at each district school participate in activities during the week.

South Routt Superintendent Scott Mader said the district also has participated in Red Ribbon Week. He said drug and alcohol prevention education is provided in high school health classes. High school students also are given a presentation about the dangers of drugs and alcohol before prom, Mader said.

In Steamboat, police Capt. Joel Rae said School Resource Officer Josh Carrell work with the high school health class to provide education. He said Grand Futures Prevention Coalition, which serves Routt, Moffat and Grand counties, also assists the district with education efforts.

Rae said Carrell's employment as the high school's resource officer could open the door for drug and alcohol prevention at the middle school. At Strawberry Park and Soda Creek elementary schools, Rae said students are taught not to talk to strangers but aren't given instruction about drugs and alcohol.

The opening of medical marijuana dispensaries in Steamboat may lead to additional education efforts, Rae said.

"I think it probably does necessitate further education about the hazards and the harmful effects," he said. "I think the dispensaries opening up certainly does send a conflicting message. The bottom line is that marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, still illegal at state level and still illegal at a local level. The only exception is having a (license)."

Mixed message

Rae isn't the only local law enforcement officer who thinks medical marijuana dispensaries send a mixed message to children.

"If you ask me if it concerns me, the answer is yes," Birch said. "We have these programs we work so hard with, like Red Ribbon Week and D.A.R.E., and then to have kids walk a few blocks away from school and walk by a place that offers food products with marijuana definitely sends a mixed message to kids."

No medical marijuana dispensaries have opened in Hayden. The Oak Creek Town Board approved a conditional business license Jan. 28 for the town's first dispensary. The six-month license was a compromise to a proposed 60-day moratorium. The town plans to work in the next couple of months to draft a formal ordinance.

Steamboat Springs School District Superintendent Shalee Cunningham declined to say whether she thought the opening of dispensaries sent a mixed message to students.

"It hasn't been anything that we've discussed," she said. "It hasn't come up, I think, because it's an adult opportunity."

Mader also declined to say whether he thought dispensaries may be a confusing issue for students.

"We'll leave that up to the legislature, law enforcement and health officials to weigh in on the issues," he said.

Legislation

Steamboat Springs City Coun­cil member Jon Quinn said the lack of agreement between medical marijuana laws at the federal, state and local levels creates confusion.

"I think right now, the truth is we have an awful mishmash of rules and laws at the state and local levels," he said. "It sends a mixed message to everybody. Right now, we're in desperate need for guidance from the state and federal level."

But he acknowledged that changes at the federal level might not come any time soon.

In October, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced formal guidelines for federal prosecutors in states that have enacted laws that permit medical marijuana use. Those guidelines include not prosecuting medical marijuana users who adhere to state laws.

Led by Sen. Chris Romer, a Denver Democrat, state lawmakers announced a bill Wednes­day that would force existing retail dispensaries to operate as nonprofits, The Denver Post reported. The bill would place an 18-month moratorium on new dispensaries, require criminal background checks for owners and employees and prohibit people convicted of felonies or drug-related misdemeanors from getting licenses.

The Denver Post story stated that the bill would not require small-scale providers — with five or fewer patients — to be licensed and would qualify them for protection for medical marijuana caregivers provided by the state constitution. Large-scale providers, or dispensaries, wouldn't have the same protection, giving counties and cities broader authority to regulate or even ban them.

Medical marijuana advocates have filed a ballot initiative to take the issue to voters, according to a story Thursday in The Denver Post. The initiative would require about 75,000 signatures.

Quinn said Steamboat's ordinance governing medical marijuana dispensaries isn't perfect. He said the City Council may have to revisit the ordinance and that it could do so if new state legislation is adopted.

Rae said state laws governing medical marijuana dispensaries are a mess and that people are abusing the system. Birch agreed and said he fears that dispensaries could lead to robberies and break-ins at businesses that grow and store marijuana.

But Rae and Birch said they weren't opposed to marijuana use for legitimate medical reasons if it's done legally.

Carta is of the opinion that marijuana shouldn't be legal in any form, even for medicinal purposes.

"I don't understand how we as adults can say it's illegal, but it's OK for this," she said. "We have to, as adults in this city, whether we have kids or not, say no. This is wrong. It's an illegal, mind-altering drug. I just think it's important for the kids."