With pot legal, here come the laws

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The state Legislature may have passed rules involving sales and usage of recreational marijuana in Colorado, but that doesn't mean there aren't unresolved issues surrounding the newly created industry.

Questions loom as to whether voters will support the tax model that legislators put in place to support retail pot regulations, and whether the federal government will intervene.

Still, lawmakers believe they did good work creating laws to regulate an industry where every movement is in uncharted territory.

“Given the short time frame, I think we've done the best job we possibly could,” said Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, a major driver of pot legislation this session. “This was the project I undoubtedly spent the most amount of time on this session, to make sure we got it right.”

Pabon was the sponsor of House Bill 1317, which creates regulations for the operation of retail marijuana stores. Retail pot shops are to open beginning Jan. 1, under the supervision of the Department of Revenue.

There will be limits as to what retail marijuana stores can and cannot do, as well as how much marijuana consumers are allowed to purchase. Some late-session amendments to the pot legislation would have allowed out-of-state residents to purchase greater amounts of the drug, as well as to permit the existence of marijuana clubs, where people could congregate to use the drug. However, those amendments failed.

Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, along with Pabon, was instrumental in crafting the Amendment 64 bills. She opposed those amendments, and said it's important for the state to go slow in rolling out the new industry.

Marijuana use and sales are illegal under federal law, and the U.S. Attorney's Office has yet to provide insight as to how it will respond to the new legislation. So, lawmakers like Jahn say they wanted to make sure they put in place regulations that support strong oversight and that also keep the drug away from children.

“We have so much to lose if we don't do this right,” Jahn said. “And because we have so many `I don't know what I don't knows,' I just think we have to move really cautiously.”

But regulations surrounding the industry are bound to change, and lawmakers certainly will address many other pot-related issues in the coming years.

“It's been 80 years since Prohibition and were still passing alcohol laws today,” said Pabon. “We've had 80 years to protect that system. We've had six months to implement this one.”

Voters to rule on tax

Another key piece of Amendment 64 legislation came in the form of House Bill 1318, which will ask voters to support a 15 percent excise tax, and an initial 10 percent sales tax on retail marijuana.

House Republicans unanimously opposed the bill, even though the bill received bipartisan support in the Senate. Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, cautioned that if voters do not approve the tax, the money could end up coming out of the state's general fund.

“It was an issue of making sure we were protecting the state,” McNulty said. “We supported suspending retail operations if the tax doesn't pass. If the tax doesn't pass ... and if you're not putting other options in front of voters, everything that state government does is vulnerable.”

Fears over what the voters might end up doing in November led to a late-session effort aimed at a partial repeal of Amendment 64, one that was supported by McNulty.

The resolution called for the suspension of retail marijuana sales if the pot taxes are not supported by voters. It would not have affected the decriminalization aspect of Amendment 64, so it still would have been legal to smoke the drug.

However, that legislation died almost as quickly as it was introduced in the Senate.

Democratic Senate President John Morse teamed up with fellow Colorado Springs Sen. Bill Cadman, the chamber's minority leader, to introduce the legislation. The resolution passed in a hastily scheduled committee hearing, just three days before the session ended. But it was never brought to the floor of the Senate for consideration.

Morse said he “didn't have the votes” to get the resolution passed. But he said he hoped the crafting of the legislation sent a message to the pro-Amendment 64 lobby, that they need to ensure the tax rate passes in November.

Pabon said he didn't think the partial repeal effort “ever would have gotten out of (a House) committee, let alone to the floor.”

“At the end of the day, the voters have already spoken about this issue and they don't need to take another vote on it,” Pabon said.

Gov. John Hickenlooper said he's confident that Amendment 64 backers will work with lawmakers in making sure that the taxes pass in November, so that the state isn't stuck with the bill.

“I think we'll all work on it,” the governor said. “I think they'll commit resources because if it doesn't pass, their lives will become chaos. And I don't even want to speculate what the federal government will do. I don't even want to speculate what the people of Colorado will do.

“They can take it nonchalantly at their own risk.”

Provisions of bills

Here are some of the key aspects of each of the three bills that deal with the regulation of retail pot sales and use:

House Bill 1317:

• In-state residents are allowed to purchase up to one ounce of marijuana at retail shops in a single transaction. Visitors to the state can purchase up to a quarter of an ounce per transaction.

• Marijuana clubs — places where people could congregate to smoke the drug — are not allowed.

• Pot shops cannot sell food or drinks that do not contain marijuana. However, they can sell products meant for using the drug, such as pipes and rolling papers. Stores also are not allowed to use known food products or cartoon characters to market marijuana products.

• All marijuana-themed magazines, such as “High Times,” must be kept behind pot store counters.

• Pot stores cannot be mobile, operating like food trucks.

• Allows existing medical marijuana stores to start retail pot shops before new businesses.

• There must be common ownership between dispensaries and cultivation facilities, and 70 percent of the marijuana grown must come from that ownership.

Senate Bill 283:

• Revises criminal statutes that deal with children. The bill treats minors possessing marijuana the same as it does underage persons who possess alcohol. It also prohibits marijuana from being allowed on school grounds

• Sets up law enforcement training that deals with roadside sobriety tests.

• Prohibits open containers of marijuana from being inside vehicles.

• Creates the same indoor air-quality restrictions as those dealing with tobacco.

House Bill 1318:

• Retail sales of marijuana are subject to an excise tax of up to 15 percent, and a retail tax of up to 10 percent. That's in addition to the standard state sales tax rate of 2.9 percent and taxes imposed by local governments where retail pot sales are allowed. Because the General Assembly cannot increase taxes, voters must approve the excise and retail taxes this November.

• Cities and counties that allow the sale of retail pot will receive a 15 percent share back of retail marijuana taxes that are collected by the state.

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