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Should Denver Extend Its Pot Moratorium?

With the marijuana industry still in its nascent stage, probably.

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When covering the issue of marijuana legalization properly, you have to, uh, weed through a whole lot of nonsense to get to the real truths.

Given its status as an internationally newsworthy issue—and given Colorado’s status as ground zero for legalization—marijuana is grabbing global headlines that put this square state squarely in the limelight. And depending on your own personal philosophical leanings and the news sites you therefore follow, you may think that because of pot, the Centennial State is either a blissful utopia or going straight to hell.

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Although the former characterization isn’t 100 percent true, the latter is flat-out false. Whenever you read alarming stories—that is, stories designed to alarm—about supposedly skyrocketing criminality or addiction rates, or when you hear know-nothings like Chris Christie talking about pot shops being on every corner or definitively claiming that marijuana is a gateway drug, your BS detector should go off like an alarm clock.

(Note: I’m purposely not hyperlinking to any of these Chicken Little tales because such journalistic malpractice doesn’t deserve any extra pageviews, and they’re easy enough to find anyway.)

Which brings us to this week’s news that the Denver City Council is considering whether to extend a moratorium on new marijuana businesses that was set to expire on January 1.

After Colorado voters approved recreational legalization, the Council decided that for the first two years, beginning in 2014, only existing medical-marijuana dispensaries would be allowed to open recreational stores. In anticipation of the moratorium’s end, marijuana entrepreneurs and investors have been preparing to enter Denver beginning in January.

(Read 5280‘s A-to-Z Guide to Legal Marijuana)

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The most glaring effect of extending the moratorium is that these folks’ time, effort, and money would be delayed, or possibly wasted. That’s no small matter, and it’s why some pro-legalization groups are arguing against extending the ban.

However, there are broader factors to consider: One is that is the state is only now getting much of its seed-to-sale testing and auditing infrastructure in place for the existing businesses. The safe, informative, and effective packaging of edible weed is also a work in progress. These processes are crucial to ensuring that the marijuana business doesn’t run amok and start pumping out product that doesn’t meet appropriate safety standards.

Another factor unique to Denver—which currently has about 210* medical and/or retail dispensaries, by far the most in the state—is that restrictions (such as needing to be at least 1,000 feet from a school) mean that nearly all of the prime real estate for these businesses is already occupied. While that could change as neighborhoods expand or evolve, the would-be newcomers to this market might run into “location, location, location” problems that would doom their enterprise anyway.

Probably the strongest argument for ending the moratorium is that it might help us avoid a “Big Marijuana” takeover of the industry, but to date, there’s little evidence that one or even a small handful of vendors is gobbling up all the local weed business. With the hundreds of licenses that have been issued to date in Denver alone, there’s certainly no imminent threat of monopoly.

Our government officials wisely decided to let medical-marijuana vendors be first in line for recreational permits because as a group, they’d exhibited an ability to establish and maintain this unknown market. It was the rest of us—consumers, testers, and regulators—that needed to catch up to them, and we’re still doing that in many ways. That doesn’t mean the pot business and its participants are problem free, but at their current size they are easier to monitor and control.

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With many of these processes still needing serious improvement—and with the questions of marijuana banking and drug scheduling still nowhere near resolved—it probably makes sense to let the experienced marijuana entrepreneurs continue to do their thing just a little bit longer. Colorado will forever be at the forefront of a trend that seems increasingly unstoppable, which means we’re obligated to execute it as thoughtfully and smartly as possible. By simply throwing open our doors to a host of new entrants without first ensuring that the current system is working as well as it can, all those bogeyman stories about marijuana that are currently phony could end up becoming true.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story said Denver has about 440 dispensaries, but that number includes growing and manufacturing facilities.

Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.

(Read about the short, happy life of one marijuana plant)

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