MMCs, Caregivers and Crime: What Will Really Happen if Medical Marijuana Centers Are Forced to Close

By Erik Myers

A primary argument among supporters of a ban on medical marijuana centers in Fort Collins is the notion that getting rid of the businesses will improve the public safety of the city. Interim Police Chief Jerry Schiager doesn’t quite agree.

“Public safety, I feel, has improved with the current dispensary model,” Schiager says.

But he has his reservations about the centers (also commonly known as dispensaries, as Schiager refers to them), making him something of a moderate in the city’s latest public debate.

He understands concerns about a return to a less-regulated presence of medical marijuana in the residential areas of Fort Collins, taking shape in the primary caregivers who can legally grow and sell the product without nearly any of the regulations required of center owners.

But he also agrees with ban supporters that the centers have had a negative impact on the city’s culture, and that their “public visibility” might be sending the wrong message to young people.

Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith, who was unavailable for comment for this story, has previously reported that Fort Collins has seen a 40 percent increase in marijuana-related incidents since 2009, the year when Colorado experienced a boom of medical marijuana businesses. But it’s questionable whether or not that statistic applies to the centers as they currently exist, as much has changed in terms of regulations since then.

Schiager says his department has not seen evidence that the centers themselves attract significant criminal activity.

“We looked at crimes occurring in a block radius around each of the dispensaries, to see if people really were loitering or doing back-alley deals,” he says. “It’s not clear. As far as significant crime increases around dispensaries, [we have not seen any].”

This finding is similar to research conducted by the Denver Police Department released earlier this year. They noticed a significant drop in criminal activity in the areas around centers from 2009 to 2010; the year new regulations for centers were enacted. This year also saw a report from the RAND Corporation, a Santa Monica-based think tank, which found that, on average, criminal activity increased by 60 percent within a quarter-mile vicinity of a center in the year after it had shut down.

The authors found that crime increased in the vicinity of closed dispensaries relative to the vicinity around dispensaries allowed to remain open. The effects are concentrated on crimes, such as breaking and entering and assault, which may be particularly sensitive to the presence of security. Hypotheses for what might drive these results include the loss of on-site security and surveillance, a reduction in foot traffic, a resurgence in outdoor drug activity, or a change in police efforts.

Schiager adds that Smith’s statistic is accurate, and as police chief, he believes the centers, even with their newer regulations, have indirectly contributed to an increase in criminal activity.

He points to a recent Coloradoan article that reported that drug-related expulsions across Poudre School District had tripled since 2008 (a statistic that was publicly challenged at the City Council meeting to discuss the future of MMCs in Fort Collins). He says the street availability of marijuana has gone up, as well as illegal marijuana-related activity, notably public smoking. He’s also upset with the way some centers have advertised their services, including one that offered discounts in a coupon book. He’s not convinced, as some ban opponents argue, that the city’s culture has been irrevocably changed.

“Does the next generation of kids, as they enter their teenage years, get a different perception if we remove the businesses?” Schiager says. “It’s hard to say what would happen if the dispensaries were shut down. You could limit the amount being grown by keeping the regulations and getting rid of the dispensaries.”

Dan Hartman isn’t so sure. As director of Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division, he says communities that enact similar bans after the businesses have taken root often don’t understand what they’re in for.

“You take these businesses that are regulated and take them off the grid, but you still have the caregiver model,” he says. “They don’t have to do a lot of the same things as the centers. Most of the time, they operate in residential areas.”

Hartman says his office has received calls from residents, city employees and law enforcement from across the state complaining about an increased presence of caregivers. Since they’re protected by Amendment 20, passed by voters in 2000, he says that there is little his office can do.

Recent legislation has dramatically changed the way centers and caregivers operate. Former governor Bill Ritter signed House Bill 1284 into law in June 2010, creating tighter regulations for centers and caregivers, as well as giving communities the right to ban the centers.

By definition, caregivers are legal providers of medical marijuana who serve a small number of patients. Under state law, caregivers can care for up to five patients, but the Fort Collins City Council enacted an ordinance in March 2010 that limited caregivers to one patient each – those providing for more would be considered a business. (There is uncertainty among public officials about whether or not the restriction would remain under a ban, since “businesses” would be banned.) Caregivers, as well as patients, can each grow up to six marijuana plants, three of which can be mature and ready for harvesting. The city ordinance limits the total number of plants in a Fort Collins household to twelve.

Caregivers are also required to register with the MMED, which issues registration information to local police if requested. They are also expected to provide services to a patient beyond providing them with medical marijuana, such as transportation or grocery shopping. Beyond that, it’s fair game; they are not subject to the same rigorous inspections, background checks, zoning or health standards that the centers are. Medical privacy law prevents the public from accessing information on caregivers, so it’s difficult to tell if there will be an increase in numbers should the ban pass.

An interesting comparison of regulatory oversight is seen in sales tax licenses. All 21 of the active medical marijuana centers have registered licenses with the city, as required by law. The total number of caregivers registered with the city is five. Linda Samuelson, who oversees the city’s Sales Tax Office, says that caregiver operations that generate a profit are expected to register for licenses, but she doesn’t know if that is the actual number of caregivers in operation because she doesn’t have access to the MMED’s registry. Steve Ackerman, a former caregiver and president of the Fort Collins Medical Cannabis Association, suspects it’s significantly higher.

“You can bet it will increase dramatically in absence of the regulated framework now in place in our city,” Ackerman says in an email interview.

Many in the medical marijuana community support the caregiver model, which has quietly existed in Colorado since 2000. Supporters say it was established to service the poor and the physically impaired. But there are concerns as to whether the position will be abused in Fort Collins should the ban pass but demand doesn’t subside.

Schaiger is uncomfortable with the idea that anyone over the age of 18 can obtain caregiver status. Hartman is concerned about the lack of building codes on caregiver’s grow operations.

“In some of the bigger cities, like Aurora, they have a lot of those types of unregulated grows,” he says. “The owners are tapping electric meters, and the grows have mold and fire hazards.”

Scene reached out to law enforcement officials in a few communities where state-regulated centers existed for a short time before bans were enacted. Those interviewed say that caregivers simply haven’t become a problem.

Grand Junction residents voted to ban the centers earlier this year, and Police Chief John Camper says his drug task force has heard only a few complaints from residents since. The city follows state guidelines on the caregiver-to-patients ratio. Sheriff Stan Hillkey of Mesa County, where every town and city has banned centers with the exception of Palisade, likens the new situation to an earlier era.

“In some regard, it feels like we’re getting back to what it was prior to 2009, before this explosion,” he says. “It’s a lot more manageable.”

He adds that there have been cases of caregivers taking advantage of the confusion over medical marijuana laws – but that his department had previously spent more resources dealing with criminal issues involving the centers.

Schiager says Fort Collins Police are prepared to deal with any negative aftereffects that might come with the ban, if they come at all. But he also wonders if a compromise isn’t out of the question.

“I try to walk the middle when speaking publicly about this – there are some pros and cons,” he says. “Maybe we can find some middle ground where we can meet.”

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