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A new crop: When state and federal law collide, questions arise

DENVER — Illinois won’t be anything like Colorado, at least at first.

The Centennial State is at the forefront of marijuana policy in the United States. It’s legal to use marijuana medically and recreationally. Colorado residents are allowed to grow marijuana in their homes.

The sales of both medicinal and recreational marijuana keep rising, according to Colorado data. In August, patients bought $32.2 million worth of medical marijuana.

“It is a lab. This is an experiment. People can learn from what we’ve done here,” said Colorado State Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver.

Illinois medical marijuana will soon be grown, sold and then used by seriously ill people who suffer from specific conditions such as cancer or muscular dystrophy.

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A new crop: The distribution

Experts in Colorado praised Illinois for the tight reins of the program. Springfield bureaucrats did not let one legal marijuana seedling be planted before the logistics were hashed out.

“If Illinois has set up the regulations and set up the oversight prior to the opening of businesses, it’s a good move on Illinois’ part,” said Marco Vasquez, the Erie County police chief who serves as a marijuana expert for the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police.

That’s not how it happened in Vasquez’s state.

In 2000, voters there passed Amendment 20, which made medical marijuana legal.

But few people took advantage of the voter-passed initiative, and state officials didn’t regulate it.

Things changed when President Barack Obama was elected.

“People thought things would be different under the Obama administration,” said Sam Kamin, a law professor at the University of Denver. “People all at once thought ‘Let’s try it and see what happens.’ “

“We went from a handful … to over 1,000 dispensaries in about six months,” Kamin said. “It just took a while for our part-time legislature to get up to speed on what was going on.”

Despite Illinois’ attempt to have total control over the new industry before plants are sprouting, patients using marijuana and entrepreneurs will have issues to contend with. Chief among them is the discord between federal and state law.

“You have to put your name on a list that says, ‘I’m somebody that wants to buy marijuana.’ If you’re a lawyer, if you’re a doctor, if you’re a schoolteacher, you might not want to be on that list,” Kamin said.

“There are usually confidentiality promises that are made, but if the federal government says, ‘Hey, we want to know everybody that says they want to buy marijuana,’ it’s hard to know how the state is going to respond to that.”

And what about the business people who own and operate marijuana businesses?

“It’s a huge unknown right now,” Kamin said. “We have this big industry that’s cash-only because the banks won’t deal with it … all the assets can be seized and the people that are involved with it can be sent to prison.”

For cops, it’s also blurry.

“We have sworn [an] oath, as all law enforcement does, to uphold the constitution of the state of Colorado … and the U.S. Constitution,” Vasquez said. “What causes us some concern is the conflict between federal law and state law. When we have sworn to uphold both constitutions, and it’s illegal federally but legal in the state of Colorado, that is a bit awkward.”

If the federal government wanted to, it could decide to come down on state legalized marijuana operations despite current indications it won’t.

And some experts think whoever is president next won’t dismantle the new, thriving industry.

“Frankly, I think the states have always been the laboratories of democracy, and by the time that happens in 2016, I think we’ll see even more states” legalize some marijuana,” said Pabon, the state rep. “Essentially it’s going to be a domino effect where the federal government may change its policy.”