MMJ Dispensaries Forced Out of School Zones

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Today’s the deadline for 23 medical marijuana dispensaries to close their doors or relocate. The order came from the Justice Department, targeting shops near schools. While school administrators have applauded the move, dispensary owners are crying foul. Colorado Public Radio’s Ben Markus reports.

Reporter Ben Markus: Businessman Andy Telsey loved the dispensary business. He got into it after the Obama Administration implicitly gave the green light a couple of years ago. Saying states, like Colorado, with strong regulations, would be left alone.

Andy Telsey: We were lied to, I was lied to.

Reporter: After he bought into two dispensaries and a grow operation, the Administration started cracking down. First, the bank shut down his dispensary accounts. Then he got a letter recently from the US Attorney saying his dispensary, The Grasshopper in Park Hill, was too close to a school and needed to move.

Telsey: Why couldn’t they come out and say this 2 or 3 years ago before people made such a, people have invested their entire life savings in this business. It took ‘em 2 1/2 years to say, “you know what, we really don’t want these things within 1000 feet of a school.”

Reporter: He tried desperately to find a new location ... but he said that’s like finding a needle in a hay stack. Too many regulations and suddenly spooked landlords. And he said he’s getting out of the business altogether.

The US Attorney said the shops have to move because of the quote “dramatic increase in student abuse of marijuana.” Something addiction specialists like Dr. Christian Thurstone with Denver Health know all to well.

Christian Thurstone: At least in the local level data that we do have, we’re seeing staggering increases.

Reporter: He says surveys of Adams County students found marijuana use jumped by 11-percentage points since the dispensaries opened. The increase was so dramatic that the researchers double checked their data. And as more and more adolescents sought treatment for marijuana at Denver Health, Thurstone began questioning his own beliefs.

Thurstone: I used to be a card carrying member of the Libertarian party and I used to think legalizing all substances was a good idea.

Reporter: But not anymore. Marijuana advocates say there’s never been a case of a kid getting pot from one of Colorado’s highly regulated dispensaries. Outside North High School in Denver, a group of students smoking cigarettes have an answer for how their classmates are getting medical marijuana.

Kids: Their parents, their family members, connections to other people who are able to get a hold of the weed.

Reporter: So they say shutting down dispensaries near a school will do little to help the problem. Nor do they see a problem with smoking weed.

Kids: Honestly, I got an A in every class and I go blitzed every damn day.

Kids: There’s no bad side to medical marijuana, or marijuana in general

Reporter: But scientists are finding that marijuana use in teenagers could have permanent effects on long term brain function. That’s why shutting down shops with names like Highland Health and Serenity Moon Wellness will make a difference -- according to Nicole Veltze, principal of North High.

Veltze: I do think it is one step in the right direction.

Reporter: And she worries that kids are getting increasingly tangled in the criminal justice system.

Veltze: And that is really the sad part about all of this, is that kids have been getting into the legal system, because of the possession, because there’s so much easy access.

Reporter: It’s become such a problem that the Denver Police Department has started keeping track of marijuana arrests at schools specifically. Though no one knows for sure if dispensaries near schools are to blame, the US Attorney says more of those shops will soon be forced to move or shut down.

[Photo: Megan Verlee]