MMJ for Autism Bill Clears Legislature, Heads to Governor

Autism will become a medical marijuana condition in Colorado if the governor approves a bill passed by the state Senate.
Autism will become a medical marijuana condition in Colorado if the governor approves a bill passed by the state Senate.
Autism patients soon will be able to use medical marijuana in Colorado. On Wednesday, March 20, the state Senate passed House Bill 1028 31 to 4, which would add autism to the qualifying list of conditions for MMJ; Governor Jared Polis supports the proposal and is expected to sign it, according to his staff.

Although HB 1028 now looks like a done deal, the measure hit plenty of bumps along the way. A similar bill passed both houses in 2018, but was ultimately vetoed by then-Governor John Hickenlooper, who issued an executive order asking the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to study MMJ's effect on autism. With the extra time, proponents had more time to fine-tune the language on this year's proposal, according to Michelle Walker of Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism. The mother of an autistic child, Walker believes that last year's measure would have prevented some children from attaining an MMJ recommendation.

"This path happened for a reason, because with 1028, we were able to ensure that individuals with autism and autistic people would have access, whereas the previous program created would have restricted assess," she explains. "Now, we've expanded access."

But that expansion took time.

The last successful effort to add a condition to the list, a 2017 bill dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, stipulated that a child suffering from PTSD must receive MMJ approval from a pediatrician, family doctor or traditional physician who had a previous patient relationship with the child. But Amendment 20, the voter-approved measure that legalized medical marijuana in the state constitution, doesn't carry such requirements, allowing any certified physician to recommend MMJ to a patient regardless of their age.

Representative Yadira Caraveo and Children's Hospital Colorado wanted an amendment to HB 1028 that would make physician requirements for autistic children similar to the PTSD stipulations, but parents of autistic children who lobbied for the bill rejected that language during the drafting process, arguing that finding traditional pediatricians or family doctors to recommend MMJ for children with any condition is extremely difficult. (According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, between 2 and 5 percent of MMJ patients under eighteen suffer from PTSD, equating to anywhere from six to seventeen patients out of around 330 overall.)

Eventually, the two sides settled on an amendment that requires a child's diagnosing physician and MMJ-recommending physician to be two different doctors, with the MMJ physician required to review diagnosis records. After that change, the bill sailed through the House and Senate relatively smoothly. "There was probably fifteen or sixteen of us in a room for hours, and we hammered out an amendment that took the medical community to a neutral place, at least," says Representative Edie Hooton, who introduced both 2018's bill and this year's version. "Even though I had the votes to get it out, it was worthwhile."

Although their hopes were dashed when Hickenlooper vetoed last year's bill, supporters have confidence in Polis. According to Hooton, the current governor told her that if the bill came across his desk, he would sign it. And once he does, HB 1028 will take effect almost immediately.

"There's a real institutional bias against marijuana. It's slowly dissipating, but it's still there. The educational proponent, though, all the hard work was really done last year," Hooton explains. "We did live with a little trepidation about where Hick would be on the bill, but this time, the new legislators were already informed, so it wasn't as hard — and we didn't have the burden of the veto hanging over us this time."

Walker, who organized a protest with families of autistic children in Hickenlooper's office last year as a desperate plea to persuade him to sign the bill, says she hadn't been back in the governor's office until she recently met with Polis.

"I knew that it would pass this year, but there was still that hesitation, because at any point in the process, I knew that something could change. So when we had that hiccup in the House, I just said, 'Oh my goodness. Not again,'" Walker remembers. "I told a friend the last time I was in this office was when we had all these kids asking our former governor to sign the bill, but it's a different feeling this year — so much more hope."