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Infighting Plagues Medical-Marijuana Advocacy Groups


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At least we can know how the conflicting interests plays out in the press.




When it comes to medical-marijuana advocacy groups at the state Capitol this year, it takes a program to keep them straight.

There are the Medical Marijuana Industry Group and the Association of Cannabis Trades for Colorado.

There are Sensible Colorado, the Cannabis Therapy Institute and the Rocky Mountain Caregivers Cooperative. Acronyms abound — MMAPR, CCPC, NORML.

When the legislature held its first public hearing last week for a bill concerning medical-marijuana regulations, people representing at least eight medical-marijuana advocacy organizations testified, voicing opinions on the measure that ranged from solid support to angry opposition.

Many advocates cite the level of involvement as a good thing.

"There is certainly less cohesion in the industry, although I don't know that that's necessarily problematic," said Betty Aldworth, the former executive director of the now-defunct dispensary trade group Coloradans for Medical Marijuana Regulation.

"My most significant concern is that people are involved and aware," she said.

The advocacy gusher has, however, created problems this year, such as when a state representative last week tore up a planned industry- friendly bill amendment that one group had lobbied hard for because the legislator grew irritated at the tactics of another group.

That incident culminated with a medical-marijuana lobbyist and a medical-marijuana activist shouting at each other in the hall outside the hearing.

State Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, the Sterling Republican who drafted and discarded the amendment, said it was not uncommon to see conflicts among advocates working on behalf of the same issue at the Capitol.

Infighting claims major group

"Oftentimes, they don't always agree, but they can sit down and have a conversation about it and come to a resolution," Sonnenberg said. "It appears to me the medical-marijuana community is its own worst enemy."

Many of the advocacy groups were around last year when the legislature adopted rules for the medical-marijuana industry, and many of the same tensions existed then.

But the divisions seem deeper this year, especially after the demise of CMMR, last year's undisputed medical-marijuana lobbying heavyweight, which collapsed amid infighting in the months after the legislative session ended.

In CMMR's place as the most formidable group at the Capitol — it had hired three lobbyists, according to state records — is the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, a collection of dispensaries. The group emphasizes professionalism and requires its members to sign a code of ethics.

"When we come to the Capitol and we bring our members to the Capitol, we come in suits," said Kristen Thomson, one of MMIG's lobbyists.

The dominant position of MMIG and the sense by some that it serves big-business interests has left a number of advocates feeling left out.

Earlier this year, several small-dispensary owners, marijuana-products makers and others joined up to create the Association of Cannabis Trades for Colorado, or ACT4CO. The goal, said member Jason Lauve, is to provide a level of professionalism similar to MMIG's but to represent a broader spectrum of interests.

"We just didn't see what the industry needed," Lauve said. "But we don't see this as a competition."

Activists vs. lobbyists

Standing in opposition to both groups are a variety of activist organizations, which argue that the organizations are too willing to compromise on regulations.

"They have given the facade that they are in the guise of civil liberties and that they are trying to help the patient," Miguel Lopez, the marijuana activist who got into a spat with a lobbyist outside last week's hearing, said of MMIG. "Most of the bills they have created have been bad for patients."

MMIG members bristle at the suggestion that they don't care about patients. Instead, they say, a stable industry with professional representation is the best way to protect patients. They point to the case of Montana, where a similar lobbying group doesn't exist and where the state House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would repeal the state's medical-marijuana law.

"If we're not good businesspeople," said Stacey Vilos-Fauth, MMIG's treasurer, "how are we going to be here for the patients?"

John Ingold: 303-954-1068 or jingold@denverpost.com

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