Anti-Marijuana Legalization Group Honors Colorado House Speaker

Colorado House Speaker Alec Garnett has been named Advocate of the Year by Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), one of the country's most prominent anti-marijuana legalization groups.

At this year's session, Garnett introduced and successfully pushed House Bill 1317, a controversial measure that will add new restrictions to medical marijuana and retail marijuana concentrates. The bill was proposed as an attempt to curb youth use of extracted marijuana products, according to Garnett and other supporters, but medical marijuana advocates believe the new restrictions add unnecessary obstacles to patients and physicians.

Under the new law, medical marijuana physicians will be subject to requirements that include providing a THC dosage amount and adding medical and mental health reviews for patients. The law also limits medical marijuana concentrate purchases, adds more application requirements for prospective patients under the age of 21, and requires that all dispensary purchases made by patients be entered into a new state tracking system. And starting in 2023, all marijuana concentrate products, both medical and recreational, will fall under new packaging or labeling rules created by the state Marijuana Enforcement Division.

A group of medical marijuana patients led by a nineteen-year-old has sued Polis for signing the bill and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for implementing the new restrictions — the Colorado Legislature can't be sued in the state — but the ongoing lawsuit hasn't affected HB 1317's implementation. The case is being transferred to a new judge, and several medical marijuana physicians may join as plaintiffs, according to lead attorney Alex Buscher.

There is no data linking teenage medical marijuana patients to a spike in youth marijuana use, but stronger guardrails for medical marijuana access and concentrated THC products were pushed by lobbies representing parents, health-care organizations and anti-legalization groups at the start of the 2021 legislative session. In May, Colorado health professionals declared a state of emergency in youth mental health, with marijuana use listed as one of several contributing factors; CDPHE data shows that the use of extracted marijuana products more than doubled among teenagers from 2015 to 2019.

Although a strict potency cap on all THC products in dispensaries was initially pushed, HB 1317 was enough to earn Garnett SAM's Patrick J. Kennedy Advocate of the Year Award for "putting public health and safety ahead of the interests of the marijuana industry."

Founded by former congressman Patrick Kennedy, a staunch opponent of recreational marijuana use who said legalization was “a public health nightmare” in 2014, SAM has fought against legalization measures at the state and federal levels since 2013. Several of SAM's reports about the dangers of legalization have been criticized for being subjective, including its claims that marijuana legalization leads to a spike in opioid use. When former United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded Obama-era protections at the federal level for state-legal marijuana operations, SAM CEO Kevin Sabet called the move "a victory."

Now that the majority of Americans have been shown to support legalization and Congress is becoming more amenable to the idea, SAM's public priorities have shifted from a full-scale war against legalization to pushing for smaller forms of decriminalization and trying to curb marijuana access through THC potency caps. According to Sabet, SAM helped lobby for HB 1317.

Asked for a comment on the award, Garnett sent a statement that didn't mention HB 1317 or SAM:

“It was a privilege to work alongside so many dedicated parents, educators and health care providers to curb youth access to concentrates and advance critical research into how these high potency products impact the developing brain. Too many young Coloradans have experienced devastating health impacts after consuming high potency products," Garnett said. "I’m proud of Colorado’s well-regulated and thriving marijuana industry, and I’m proud of how we are leading the way to learn more about high potency products. The law we passed strikes a balance to protect access for patients and keep high potency concentrates away from kids who shouldn’t have them.”

But Garnett also supplied a statement for SAM's announcement of his award. “This is a distinct honor,” he said. “I am so proud to be affiliated with all of you and proud of the work you have been doing, and I think the sky really is the limit.”