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Colo. Task Force Navigates New Pot Rules

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

You can smoke marijuana just for fun now, in Colorado. It is legal. But two months after voters overwhelmingly approved the ballot measure that made it legal, there's still no way to buy it legally. That's because the state is busy crafting new regulations for a drug that's still illegal at the federal level.

As Colorado Public Radio's Ben Markus reports, that's just one of the many daunting challenges facing a state task force that meets today.

BEN MARKUS, BYLINE: Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper did not want his state to legalize marijuana. During the campaign, he said Colorado is known for many great things, and marijuana should not be one of them. And so it was during a somewhat somber press conference that the governor announced he had signed the legalization into law.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER: Our voters very clearly said that they thought this was a step forward. I think our job now is to make sure that we do the best we can to respect the will of those voters, and to make that step forward as thoughtful and as constructive as we possibly can.

MARKUS: So Hickenlooper set up a 24-member task force to make recommendations on everything from regulations for new pot shops, to keeping the drug out of kids' hands. That's a lot of work. But Colorado has one, huge advantage: The state already has a regulated and thriving medical marijuana industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAREHOUSE FANS)

MARKUS: In a north Denver warehouse, Elliot Klug, owner of Pink House Dispensary, proudly displays his crop of bright-green marijuana plants.

ELLIOT KLUG: This is the vegetative room. So here you got the very early stages of the plant before we send it in to harvest.

MARKUS: On the snow-lined streets outside, it's freezing. But in here, it's summer. Fluorescent light floods the room, and big fans keep the warm air flowing. Klug points out that each plant has a number attached to it.

KLUG: We track every gram, every plant. Every plant has a serial number. So there you see the regulation in effect.

MARKUS: This is the cornerstone of Colorado's medical marijuana regulations: tracking the drug from a little seed to a flowering plant, to the final sale in the retail shop. Many of these medical marijuana regulations will simply be copied into the new recreational marijuana laws. But Klug has a bigger problem: He can't open a bank account because the drug is still against federal law. That makes banks regulated by the federal government nervous.

KLUG: It's huge. We're a cash-only right now.

MARKUS: That means he can't get a loan, can't write checks for payroll. Gov. Hickenlooper's chief legal counsel, Jack Finlaw, a co-chair of the marijuana task force, agrees that this will also be a huge problem for recreational growers.

JACK FINLAW: It's not good to have these small businesses handling so much cash. It would be safer for everybody if they could bank like a normal business could.

MARKUS: Last year, the Colorado legislature floated the idea of a co-op or credit union for the state's more than 500 medical pot shops, but the bill failed.The task force is also charged with addressing recreational marijuana's social consequences. Task force member Dr. Christian Thurstone runs one of the largest addiction-treatment centers in the state. He's seen a threefold increase in the number of kids seeking treatment, mostly for medical marijuana.

DR. CHRISTIAN THURSTONE: We've made mistakes in regulating alcohol and tobacco. And we have a chance, now, to really learn from those mistakes - and to try to get it right this time.

MARKUS: He says that means tight controls on advertising, and some kind of educational campaign that dispels the myth that marijuana is harmless. The task force must make its recommendations by the end of next month, and the legislature has until May to adopt some version of them. There's still one, big cloud hanging over the whole process: The Obama administration hasn't signaled if it'll even allow retail marijuana shops.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Markus in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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