By Katie McCrimmon and Rebecca Jones
The federal government is cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries in Colorado for the first time, ordering 23 dispensaries near schools to shut down within 45 days or face criminal prosecution and seizure of their property.
U.S. Attorney John Walsh sent warning letters Thursday to the unidentified dispensaries and said in a news release that many are closer than 1,000 feet to K-12 campuses.
“When the voters of Colorado passed the limited medical marijuana amendment in 2000, they could not have anticipated that their vote would be used to justify large marijuana stores located within blocks of our schools,” Walsh said.
Federal authorities are working to identify all marijuana stores within 1,000 feet of a school, he said, and Thursday’s warnings “are merely a first step to address this issue.”
- This story results from a partnership between Education News Colorado, the I-News Network and Solutions.
- See a spreadsheet showing schools located within 1,200 feet of medical marijuana facilities
- Read how the analysis was done
“The office will continue to insist marijuana stores near schools shut down,” he said.
Walsh cited data showing many school districts in Colorado “have seen a dramatic increase in student abuse of marijuana, with resulting student suspensions and discipline” since medical marijuana facilities opened.
An ongoing investigation by Education News Colorado, Solutions and the I-News Network found a 44 percent jump in all drug-related incidents at K-12 schools statewide over the past four years. That increase occurred from the 2008-09 school year through 2010-11.
The figures from the Colorado Department of Education don’t specify the drugs involved, but several school and health officials interviewed across Colorado attributed the increase to marijuana use.
“We’ve really seen our numbers go up,” said Judy Mueller with YouthZone, a Glenwood Springs non-profit that works to keep young offenders out of juvenile court. “It is medical marijuana that their friends or friends’ parents got. They’re telling us it’s easy to get. They’re getting it from an adult’s stash.”
As many as 56 medical marijuana dispensaries located within 1,000 feet of a school
The investigation also found that other dispensaries could be targeted under the crackdown. As many as 56 medical marijuana facilities in Colorado are located within 1,000 feet of a school, according to an I-News analysis of school addresses and licenses issued to more than 700 medical marijuana facilities statewide.
Thursday’s action sets up a potential showdown between federal and local authorities, though legal experts agree that federal law – which clearly states marijuana is illegal – trumps local law.
Federal law also imposes enhanced penalties for drug activity within 1,000 feet of a school.
State law recommends a 1,000-foot buffer between medical marijuana facilities and schools, drug rehabilitation centers and child care centers. But the law allowed local authorities to set their own rules.
So Colorado Springs, for example, allows marijuana facilities within 400 feet of schools while Denver has several closer than 1,000 feet. Those facilities have been allowed to continue operating because they opened before the state law was enacted.
Among other findings of the investigation:
- Up to 45 public schools are within 1,000 feet of a medical marijuana facilities. The range — depending on how you measure the distance — is from 31 to 45. Because there are multiple medical marijuana facilities near some schools, the total number of medical marijuana facilities within 1,000 feet of Colorado schools is up to 56.
- Most of the schools closest to dispensaries are in Denver and Colorado Springs. For example, North High School in Denver and Palmer High School in Colorado Springs have marijuana facilities within 1,000 feet.
- Overall, 370 of the 1,692 public school buildings in Colorado lie within a mile of a medical marijuana dispensary or product infusion manufacturer. That’s 22 percent – or between one-fourth and one-fifth of all schools.
Colorado medical marijuana officials had hoped to avoid federal enforcement
Rumored for weeks, the Colorado crackdown follows similar federal action in California.
Colorado medical marijuana industry officials had hoped that they would dodge federal enforcement because they say the state tightly regulates the marijuana industry.
“We are looking into the situation now. We fully support keeping regulated substances out of the hands of unauthorized users and schools,” Elliott said in a written statement.
“Towards that end, MMIG is in the process of putting together, and will announce soon, the details of a public education campaign to help educate medical marijuana patients about how to keep their medicine safe and secure.”
School officials welcomed the news of a crackdown.
“We are supportive of the law as written and are glad to see the U.S. Attorney enforcing the buffer zone,” said Antonio Esquibel, executive director of the West Denver Network Schools, including North High School.
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, has tried to pin down the U.S. Attorney General regarding federal enforcement of medical marijuana businesses that comply with state law.
Polis released a statement Thursday saying that he supports keeping dispensaries at least 1,000 feet away from schools.
“Both federal and Colorado law state that dispensaries are not allowed within 1,000 feet of schools, which is a policy that makes sense, that I support, and with which all businesses should comply,” Polis said.
“The Justice Department has repeatedly made clear that dispensaries that are in compliance with state law are not an enforcement priority. Colorado’s tough system of medical marijuana regulation is the best way to keep drugs out of the hands of minors.”
Studies, health officials find marijuana use among minors is increasing
National and local studies in Colorado show that marijuana use among minors is on the rise.
Dr. Chris Thurstone, who runs a drug and alcohol treatment program at Denver Health, said nearly all of the young people in his program abuse or are dependent on marijuana. He walked around East and North high schools in Denver and was shocked at the number of dispensaries located near the schools.
Thurstone can’t prove the proximity of dispensaries has caused the spike in marijuana abuse among his patients, he said, but he cited research showing teen marijuana use rises when it’s easily available, socially acceptable and perceived not to be harmful.
“There’s been lots of debate about how close to a school it should be,” Thurstone said. “Should it be 500 feet, 1,000 feet? Should we grandfather in the people who are already there? It kind of blows my mind that that’s a debate.”
Calculating distances between schools and medical marijuana facilities
The analysis compared the locations of public schools in Colorado compiled by the state Department of Education to the addresses of medical marijuana dispensaries and infused product manufacturers from the Colorado Department of Revenue using ARCview GIS software and its geocoding technology. Not all marijuana facilities could be mapped because of problems with the addresses.
Duplicate schools at the same physical address were not counted twice and online schools were not included in the analysis. Using the GIS software, the analysis electronically calculated the distances between schools and marijuana addresses.
It calculated a range of schools that could be within a 1,000 feet of a medical marijuana facility since the software calculates distances between addresses and the state law measures from property line to property line.
The spreadsheet includes a description of the different types of medical marijuana facilities:
- Type 1 – license for 300 or fewer clients
- Type 2 – licensed for 301 to 500 clients
- Type 3 – licensed for 501 and more clients
- Infused product manufacturer – Facilities that process marijuana into edibles such as baked goods.