DENVER (AP) — Colorado lawmakers are debating whether they should close a loophole in the state's marijuana laws that could allow pot growers to pay far less in taxes by registering as the medical marijuana caregivers.
Colorado's chief medical officer and the head of the agency that regulates marijuana businesses asked a panel of legislators Tuesday to examine the laws that regulate pot suppliers who provide the drug to people on the medical registry.
They say some caregivers have large operations with up to 100 patients, with hundreds of marijuana plants, and are essentially commercial growers skirting proper oversight. Caregivers, they note, can sell marijuana to medical patients at the 2.9 percent tax rate, while recreational pot carries a 25 percent state tax, in addition to local taxes.
The state's top medical officer, Dr. Larry Wolk, said high-volume marijuana caregivers are violating the spirit of the law.
"I am fairly certain that doesn't meet the definition of a caregiver," Wolk said.
Medical marijuana advocates, however, say that a change in the law would be premature and could cause already shrinking supplies of the drug to dwindle further.
"The state of Colorado's interest is not in the health of the patients, it's in the money. And that's disgusting," said Laura Kriho of the Cannabis Therapy Institute.
There are about 5,000 registered caregivers in the state, and the application process remains open. Those seeking the designation don't face the extensive background checks or fees required of those who grow or sell pot commercially.
Caregivers are required only to be 18 or older and have "significant responsibility for managing the well-being of a patient who has a debilitating medical condition."
The model was part of Colorado's 2000 adoption of a medical marijuana system. It was not changed by the 2012 expansion of marijuana access to all adults 21 and older — not just sick people.
The state currently sets a five-patient cap, but caregivers can seek waivers for more. And because some patients have authorization for high numbers of pot plants, a handful of caregivers have significant growing operations.
Colorado lawmakers now will consider giving caregivers a hard limit of five patients, plus themselves, and a maximum of 30 plants.
Barbara Brohl, the head of the Department of Revenue, which regulates marijuana businesses, agrees with Wolk and has asked lawmakers to step in and require high-volume marijuana caregivers to submit to the same scrutiny required of commercial growers. That includes background checks, daily tracking of marijuana inventory and 15 percent state excise taxes.
"They should then apply to the Department and go through the same process that any other marijuana business would do," Brohl said.
The Legislative Audit Committee, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers, voted 6-1 to have a bill drafted to limit marijuana caregivers. The full Legislature would consider the idea later this year.
Wolk said it's too soon to know whether Coloradans are fleeing to the medical marijuana registry, as some predicted.
It also is unclear what chances the bill would have of passing.
In addition to the higher tax rate on retail marijuana, high permitting and licensing fees have further driven up the price of Colorado pot.
Some Colorado marijuana shops are selling high-end marijuana for as much as $400 an ounce before taxes — about double what it cost before recreational retail sales opened Jan. 1.
Patient advocates have complained about the marijuana price spike and supply problems.
Colorado's recreational pot inventory has come entirely from the state's pre-existing medical marijuana inventory, leaving some patients who don't grow pot at home paying higher prices until new plants mature.
"I'm in tears over the whole thing. People can't get their medicine and others are making millions of dollars," said Kriho, the medical marijuana advocate.
Kristen Wyatt can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt