Colorado wants to set up a first-in-the-nation tracking system of medical marijuana purchases to deter people from buying vast amounts of pot and selling it on the black market.
Patients and marijuana advocates fear they will be harassed by a Big Brother-type intrusion as computers and video cameras monitor every ounce of pot sold in the state. Officials are also considering fingerprinting marijuana patients and keeping tabs on pot with radio-frequency devices.
"This is a matter of my functioning daily living," said Diane Bilyeu, a 49-year-old woman who sometimes consumes up to 2 grams of pot in a day to treat her chronic pain since losing her right arm and leg in a 1997 car accident. "Some days I need more or less. I don't know what business it is of the government's."
Officials say the regulations will provide basic protections to ensure that the system isn't being abused by drug dealers and users.
Medical marijuana has been legal in Colorado since 2000, but the recent proliferation of marijuana dispensaries prompted state lawmakers this year to pass a series of new regulations.
It is an issue playing out around the country with 14 states allowing medical marijuana and possibly more to come under November ballot measures.
No state has gone so far to track pot purchases from seed to sale like Colorado is proposing, and regulators say their tracking plans could be a model for other states. Montana lawmakers are expected to consider medical marijuana tracking in that state when they convene next year.
Specifics of Colorado's tracking plans haven't yet been drafted. Regulators say they'll have a plan by January to use video surveillance and a central computer system to flag multiple purchases.
Other ideas include using biometrics to track patients, requiring a fingerprint scan before each sale to make sure the customer matches the marijuana card. They are also considering mandating that medical pot include radio-frequency identification devices, somewhat like coded tags on library books, to keep track of who's getting what.
In addition, tracking could include requiring dispensaries to capture patient driver's licenses on camera to record their purchases.
"It's akin to the protections that are in place for pharmacies, or a wagering line at a horse or dog track," said Matt Cook, the senior director for medical marijuana enforcement for the Colorado Department of Revenue. "You need to maintain the public confidence in what is going on, and the only way to do that is through these systems."
Cook said the state has no clue how much medical marijuana now is ending up on the black market because it lacks central tracking. An unscrupulous buyer could shop at several dispensaries and stock up on large quantities of pot, with no way to notice that Patient X is buying marijuana from multiple businesses.
Cook described a scenario where a patient card is used to buy marijuana several times in one day from dispensaries located far apart. Under the tracking system, the state would be alerted of possible fraud and would notify all dispensaries not to sell to that patient until the state can verify that it is indeed the same person buying all the pot, which would be done through video surveillance soon to be required at pot shops.
But patients are vowing to fight tracking plans. They're especially alarmed that state regulators have yet to issue specifics on how the tracking would work.
"It seems like there could be an ulterior motive here," said Randy James Martinez of Commerce City, 42, who uses medical marijuana for diabetic neuropathy. "Why do they need to keep such close track? Opiate abuse is far more prevalent and far more destructive than any marijuana use or abuse."
A public hearing is planned on the tracking rules in January, but the tracking wouldn't require lawmaker approval because it would be considered an agency regulation.
A marijuana activist who sits on the rulemaking panel, Brian Vicente of Sensible Colorado, said patients and dispensaries fear an onerous intrusion and are still waiting to hear how tracking would work.
"Right now I'd say there's a lot of fear and a lot of confusion out there," Vicente said.