Proponents of an effort to place a marijuana-legalization initiative on the 2012 ballot called on state Attorney General John Suthers today to stay on the rhetorical sidelines during the campaign.
The salvo came after Suthers has in recent days been critical of a state medical-marijuana regulator who wrote a letter to communities considering medical-marijuana business bans this year. Suthers said the letter, from Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division boss Dan Hartman, improperly veered into advocacy against the bans.
At a news conference today outside Suthers’ office, Mason Tvert and Brian Vicente, the leaders of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, said it is hypocritical of Suthers to criticize Hartman while himself speaking out against marijuana initiatives.
“Attorney General Suthers believes it is unethical for one state employee to offer an opinion on a ballot initiative,” Tvert said. “Yet Attorney General Suthers has vociferously spoken out against marijuana initiatives in the past.”
But Mike Saccone, a spokesman for Suthers, said Suthers is in an entirely different position than Hartman, which made the Hartman’s letter inappropriate.
“The key difference here is that the Attorney General is a statewide elected official with broad responsibilities versus the head of the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division, a civil servant whose job it is to be a neutral regulator of an industry,” Saccone wrote in an e-mail. “The Attorney General believes that it is problematic for a regulator to be choosing sides in an election that affects a business that his agency collects fees from and oversees.”
The controversy began bubbling two weeks ago, after Hartman wrote a letter about what he saw as the possible impacts of proposed dispensary bans in several communities, including Palisade and Steamboat Springs. In the letter, Hartman said a ban would prevent the MMED from doing anything about small, nuisance medical-marijuana operations that may result after dispensaries are closed.
“I want Colorado citizens to truly understand what they are voting for or against,” Hartman wrote in the letter. “This ban will not remove medical marijuana from your community, but it will prevent the MMED from being able to help ensure that medical marijuana sales are regulated, monitored, safe, secure and taxed.”
After the controversy surfaced, MMED spokeswoman Julie Postlethwait sent a statement to The Denver Post saying the letter was written in response to questions from the community and was not intended to take a position on the vote. Suthers told 9News that new Department of Revenue head Barbara Brohl planned to do an internal review.
Amid rumors in the medical-marijuana community that the controversy has resulted in Hartman’s being re-assigned, a Department of Revenue spokesman last week said Brohl is reviewing the department’s organization and plans to announce changes this week. The spokesman said he couldn’t comment on Hartman’s status, and Hartman has not responded to numerous phone messages.
The MMED is in charge of regulating and auditing all of the state’s medical-marijuana businesses, including dispensaries and large marijuana-growing operations. It has recently begun issuing the first marijuana-specific state business licenses in the country.
Tvert and Vicente’s initiative would create a regulatory structure similar to one the MMED already oversees. The campaign has collected close to 100,000 signatures to put the initiative on the ballot, Tvert said. It hopes to collect about 40,000 more, to ensure it has the 86,105 valid signatures needed for the measure to go before voters.