After almost disappearing during a lengthy debate over the potency of legal marijuana products, a bill solidifying medical marijuana and dispensary practices embraced during the COVID-19 pandemic survived an early vote in a legislative committee.
Both telemedicine for medical marijuana patients and online ordering of legal pot have been allowed in Colorado for over a year, thanks to executive orders issued by Governor Jared Polis in March 2020. Those orders will eventually end, but Representative Matt Gray's House Bill 1058 proposes to make the practices permanent. Still, the measure has a long hill to climb.
Gray's bill, which was introduced nearly three months ago, could still become ensnared in an ongoing debate over the amount of THC in commercial marijuana concentrates. While a draft of a measure to limit potency was leaked to Westword early in the session, such a bill has not been introduced. Now there are whispers of a compromise coming in the form of concentrate packaging restrictions and required suicide toxicology reporting on marijuana use, as well as a potential statewide system that would track the amount of marijuana purchased by an individual. (In Colorado, adults 21 and up can purchase only 1 ounce of marijuana per day; medical marijuana patients are allowed to purchase 2 ounces.)
"There's going to be more of a conversation about that, I think, coming soon," Gray said of potential proposals to tighten marijuana regulations.
And even though no such proposals have come to light, the issue of potency came up in the discussion of HB 1058 during a House Business Affairs & Labor Committee meeting on May 13.
"This bill has nothing to do with potency, even though people have talked to folks on this committee very much about it," Gray said before his bill eventually passed, 8-5. "There are many aspects of this pandemic we want to put behind us, but I don't think these two conveniences are things we're ready to [give up]."
Widely accepted for physician consultations in Colorado, telemedicine is still banned under state law for medical marijuana visits. Polis's executive order was intended to help at-risk patients — some of whom testified during the committee hearing — during the pandemic, but also ended up benefiting families with child patients, according to several mothers of autistic children who are advocating for the bill.
"If you've ever tried to get an autistic child in a car to go to an appointment that is outside of their routine, you know how difficult that is. Getting them ready takes weeks of preparation," said Autumn Brooks, whose teenage son uses medical marijuana oil to help with aggression and cognitive function. Since the shift to telemedicine, Brooks says, her son has connected more with his doctors from the comfort of his own home.
Medical marijuana physician Joseph Cohen told state reps that incorporating telemedicine benefited the majority of his patients and strengthened doctor-patient relationships. "They're in a very relaxed environment," he said. "I'm able to talk to them while they're relaxed, and we can talk about so much more."
A handful of mothers, doctors and addiction specialists testified testified against the bill, citing concerns over easing access to youth use, though. HB 1058 is also opposed by organizations including the Colorado Medical Society, Colorado Psychiatric Society, Children's Hospital Colorado and Denver Health.
In Colorado, people between the ages of 18 and 20 can apply for a medical marijuana card. Pointing to state Medical Marijuana Registry data showing that there are around 4,000 patients in that age range and around 150 patients aged 11 to 17, groups such as Blue Rising PAC and Smart Colorado worry that patients under 21 are selling medical marijuana to children.
Pueblo emergency-medicine physician Brad Roberts says he's seen more instances of psychosis, suicide attempts and respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses related to marijuana since recreational dispensaries opened in 2014. He believes that allowing telemedicine for older teenagers to continue would increase those problems. "These things have been increasing, and have increased further during the pandemic," Roberts told the committee.
Medical marijuana evaluations are "closer to five minutes than an hour," he said. "These are best served through a real, accurate physical examination."
During the meeting, Gray introduced an amendment before that would require 18-to-20-year-olds to secure two doctor recommendations and a medical-record review before receiving medical marijuana approval via telemedicine; several committee members said the amendment made the bill more palatable, and they approved the change.
The portion of Gray's bill that would allow customers to pay for marijuana orders online before picking up their purchases at the store got slightly less pushback from the groups opposing MMJ telemedicine. While pre-ordering marijuana products that are later paid for at the dispensary is already legal in Colorado, paying for orders online with credit, debit or pre-paid cards is banned by law. However, Polis's executive order made such purchases legal.
Over the past year, a handful of Colorado dispensaries have modified their stores to include walk-up and drive-thru windows for to-go orders, with the state Marijuana Enforcement Division adopting a rule change allowing the quicker transactions to stay for good. Customers would still have to show identification and receive their items at the store if Gray's bill passes.
HB 1058 is now waiting on a hearing in the House Finance Committee.
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