Controversial Medical Pot Caregivers Bill Passes Senate Committee

Senators at yesterday's hearing for the medical marijuana caregivers bill.
Senators at yesterday's hearing for the medical marijuana caregivers bill.

The pool of medical marijuana caregivers and patients could get smaller under provisions of a bill that's now been endorsed by a bipartisan Senate committee.

SB 15-014, sponsored by Senator Irene Aguilar, a Denver Democrat, swept through the Colorado Senate Health and Human Service Committee by a 5-0 vote Thursday, and private caregivers and medical marijuana physicians are bracing for change. The revisions to Colorado's medical marijuana regulations would require caregivers to register with the state and create stricter guidelines for doctors prescribing cannabis to patients suffering from severe pain — the symptom Aguilar says accounts for over 93 percent of what have become known as red cards.

"This was designed to stop inappropriate access to medical marijuana," she said during the committee hearing.

That and make the state more tax revenue. Caregivers aren't taxed, and the sales tax for medical pot is almost 30 percent less than recreational. As a result, the medical marijuana registry has grown since 2014 — a significant reason the state fell short of its predicted tax haul. The bill doesn't hide from it's intentions, either. Here's part of its legislative declaration:

The state imposes a higher tax rate on retail marijuana than on medical marijuana, as well as an additional excise tax. Therefore, it is important for the state to ensure that those people who are accessing and engaging in the medical marijuana system are qualified to do so. Otherwise, the state and local governments will be deprived of valuable tax revenue.

Another concern mentioned in the bill involves helping law enforcement. According to a study Aguilar cited during the meeting, less than 1 -percent of Colorado's 2,500-plus medical marijuana caregivers are registered with the state, causing local authorities to struggle with determining which private grows are legal or illegal. Under the new regulations, caregivers would have to register with the state within ten days of being asked to do so or be stripped of their licenses forever.

"Lobbyists have been paid to push their interests to eventually funnel all cannabis users into the retail market to gain higher profits," Colorado Caregivers member Benjie Robinson wrote on on Facebook. "Because of this, true cannabis patients and their caregivers are being attacked because we are perceived as a threat"

Attendees at the hearing.
Attendees at the hearing.

Many medical marijuana activists believe requiring caregivers to register is unconstitutional under the medical marijuana amendment passed in 2000, but the Associated Press reported that the Governor's Office feels otherwise after consulting with Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman. Caregivers are also reluctant to enter their names in a government database with an unclear future of state and federal pot laws. 

Although caregivers and their patients are largely against the bill, many in the retail industry believe a portion of caregivers use their tax-exempt status to make money in the black market. Tyler Henson, president of the Colorado Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, thinks all the work the regulated industry has done to gain respect is being compromised by dishonest caregivers.

"When a story comes along about diversion out of state, it is the licensed medical and retail industry who takes the blame," he said in an e-mail to Westword. "We work hard to prove that Colorado is doing it right, and this (bill) helps us with those goals."

Henson doesn't want to see private marijuana caregivers cease to exist, he says, but he hopes the bill will push out anyone growing pot and selling it to non-patients under the guise of medical cannabis.

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"Make the investment into getting licensed," he said about illegal growers. "You’re clearly operating a business at that level of cultivation, so act like a business, and do the right thing by licensing and paying taxes."

The bill is headed next to an appropriations committee, presumably to be followed by a vote by the full Senate.

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