The Denver City Council will vote in April on whether the state's largest city will opt out of licensing recreational marijuana sales — a move that could dramatically affect legalization efforts in Colorado.
City leaders are wrestling with how to implement Amendment 64, which legalized recreational use and possession, cultivation and distribution of limited quantities of marijuana.
On Monday, a council's committee dealing with this issue brought in experts from the city's police chief and medical marijuana industry officials to talk about pot.
"Do I want them getting it at retail places or do I want them to get it from some unnamed source?" asked Councilwoman Robin Kniech.
Denver, where 66 percent of voters approved Amendment 64, has a short but well-thought out history with the sale of medical marijuana.
The city has become a national model in how it regulates dispensaries and grow facilities. Now, 207 dispensaries operate in the city — slightly more than the number of liquor stores. And more than half of the 108,526 Colorado patients who possess a valid registry ID card for medical marijuana live in the Denver metro area with 17,711 living in Denver County alone.
In 2012 there were $130 million in gross sales of medical marijuana that generated $4.6 million in sales tax revenue for Denver, up from $1.8 million in 2010.
But marijuana-related crime also has increased, said Denver Police Chief Robert White, speaking Monday to the council committee.
"It should be noted that our biggest challenge in terms of marijuana are burglaries," White said.
In 2009, there were 10 burglaries in which marijuana was on the premises at the time of the crime. In 2012, there were 102 marijuana-related burglaries, White said. An estimated 60 percent of those burglaries were of residences, said Sgt. Andrew Howard of the police department's marijuana task force.
"People know there is product there and they are breaking in," Howard said.
Because medical marijuana businesses have trouble getting banks to work with them out of concerns over breaking federal drug laws, many of those dispensaries have a lot of cash on hand.
"Any business that has large cash on hand is high potential for crime," Howard said.
Howard also noted other safety issues around the cultivation of marijuana. One out of every 22 marijuana grow operations has an unintended fire, adding that the residential grow operations have more of those fires.
Councilman Chris Nevitt said the crime stats showed that regulation and control by the city is better than what would occur if the city wasn't involved.
"The big problems are coming from people growing in their homes under the radar," he said.
Michael Elliott, president and chief executive officer of the Medical Marijuana Group, agreed.
"One thing that is true, statewide marijuana use is now decriminalized," he said. "It is legal to possess it. We know it will be sold in Denver. Do we want to control it or not? The chief said the biggest problem are the home grows. Is it going to be sold in homes and neighborhoods around the city or in licensed, controlled and taxed businesses?"
The council was going to take a formal vote in March on whether to pursue regulating recreational marijuana or opt out altogether. Members decided Monday to delay that decision for another month to hear from others, such as Denver Health and Denver Human Services on the social and implications of marijuana.
The council in April also will vote on whether to allow marijuana dens where patrons can gather legally to consume marijuana.
The city is under a tight deadline to come up with a plan. The state legislature, which is working on how to regulate marijuana, adjourns May 8. Amendment 64 calls for regulations to be promulgated by July 1.
By Oct. 1, the state will begin accepting and processing licenses. That gives the city three months to decide on and implement its own regulations for the Jan. 1, 2014, deadline.
"Is Denver going to opt out," asked Councilman Charlie Brown, who is chairing the special committee set up to figure out what Denver is going to do. "I can't imagine we won't. It's called the will of the voters."