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The good fight 

That's the fear many center owners feel the first time they have an encounter with an inspector with the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division (MMED) of the state Department of Revenue.

"The biggest hurdle we have initially is that fear — the fear of the unknown because they've never met us," says Paul Schmidt, agent in charge of enforcement.

But the inspectors are not out to get any MMC. In fact, Schmidt insists, it's quite the opposite. Inspectors, whose pay comes from centers' licensing fees, "ensure public safety through the regulation and oversight of the medical marijuana industry," says Schmidt. "Really we're out to regulate. And regulation through compliance; compliance through education."

Basically, they want to make sure the centers are running their businesses according to regulations, so the industry can keep moving forward. "It's the public that brought this here with a vote, and the public can take it away with a vote," says Schmidt. "If we don't educate the public on the truth, we're going to lose everything."

Making a list

That's why they want to make sure the centers are moving away from street names like AK-47, and moving toward using clinical terms, like any professional industry would. Though the centers are not required to stop using street names, it is highly encouraged. When you call strains by their street names, Schmidt says, "That's the underground. It's just dope; it's just people getting high." It gives the industry the appearance of being a street operation rather than a medical one.

The MMED works from an inspection checklist that includes six categories, with specific items of inspection listed under each. The categories include marijuana-infused products; security requirements; location; storage and transportation; product labeling; and waste disposal. The inspectors look for specific things like proper video surveillance, proper labeling of products, and sanitary practices for preparation of edibles, among others.

The MMC owners are given a copy of the checklist and what the inspector considers a reasonable amount of time to fix infractions (based on the cost and labor involved in fixing the infraction). If compliance has not been reached by the time the MMED comes back for a second inspection, the business owner is given a "Notice of Proposed Denial," which means that owner has to state his or her case to the director of the MMED. At that point, a decision will be made as to whether the business will keep or obtain its license.

Consider 'cannabis'

The division is new, and in some ways, it shows. For instance, while inspectors and some support folks work out of all four offices — Colorado Springs, Denver, Fruita and Fort Collins — the division is still working on hiring a full staff.

Inspectors would ideally visit each center twice a year, and no less than once a year. But the visit schedule depends on how long it actually takes to cover each region, and Colorado Springs supervisory investigator Hank Hasler's area extends from here to New Mexico, and east to Kansas. And each visit — which may be announced or unannounced — can last anywhere from half an hour to all day, depending on size, number of infractions, and the number of questions the owner has for the inspectors.

When Schmidt and Hasler entered a local MMC called Cannabicare in late 2011, the exchange with owners Jeff and Julie Sveinsson was surprisingly pleasant, especially since it was the center's first inspection. Introductions were made, and Schmidt explained to them how the inspection would go. There even was some lighthearted joking between the two parties.

"There's no attitude," Jeff says later. "They want to work with the industry, and they want to make sure that the people who are in the industry who are playing by the rules and are doing everything that they've been asked to, are doing just that. And they're probably going to get rid of the people that aren't."

The biggest thing they want to accomplish, in Schmidt's estimation, is to educate people and get away from the underground stigma of the industry. "Let's quit calling it pot; let's quit calling it weed. Let's call it cannabis."

newsroom@csindy.com

  • State inspectors say they just want to help an industry succeed.

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