Medical marijuana recommendations could soon be harder to get in Colorado.
After an eight-hour hearing at the State Capitol, the thirteen representatives on the House Public & Behavioral Health & Human Services Committee unanimously approved a bill proposing stricter rules for medical marijuana patients and physicians, as well as new packaging requirements for commercial marijuana concentrate and state-funded research into the mental-health effects of potent marijuana products.
The possibilities of capping commercial marijuana potency have loomed over Colorado's pot industry during the 2021 legislative session as lobbies representing parents, public educators and health-care representatives have pushed for more restrictions on concentrated THC products. On May 18 that push went public, when more than 200 people signed up to speak about House Bill 1317.
Some parents talked about how their teenagers slowly became hooked on various forms of marijuana concentrate, which now ranges from 50 percent to upwards of 90 percent THC, while other parents, whose children are medical marijuana patients, as well as adult patients testified that those same products are what they need to keep their lives comfortable.
"We're hearing more and more about how the market is changing away from traditional flower and toward concentrates," said House Speaker and bill sponsor Alec Garnett, adding that he's concerned that eighteen-year-old medical marijuana patients who haven't yet graduated are “using the loopholes in our system to divert product into the high school.”
Garnett and fellow Democratic rep Yadira Caraveo, a physician, have emerged as the most vocal proponents of limiting THC potency in marijuana products. The two were part of a press conference held by House Democrats right before the bill's introduction, with State Attorney General Phil Weiser and several Republican lawmakers also in attendance.
"It is still a drug. Over the years I’ve been a pediatrician in private practice, I’ve noticed more young people are using these products," Caraveo said at the press conference, explaining that she wants the state to start "treating medical marijuana more like any other medicine." A draft proposal by Caraveo to regulate potency — which called for a 15 percent THC limit on all infused marijuana products — surfaced in March but was never introduced.
Although there's no scientific data on the subject, parents, addiction specialists and public schools have suggested that an increase in teenagers facing addiction and depression, and even attempting suicide, can be tied to marijuana concentrate sold at dispensaries and the state's current medical marijuana system. Senator Kevin Priola, a sponsor of HB 1317, counts himself as one of those parents.
According to Priola, his son started using marijuana at fourteen and has been struggling with addiction for nearly five years. After bouts of locking up his keys and wallet to keep his son from stealing them, Priola temporarily kicked him out of the house in order "to protect our other kids," he said.
“He can’t quit. I’ve offered him $1,000 a month to pass a drug test, to match it and invest it for him. He can’t quit,” Priola noted.
Marijuana usage rates have remained flat in Colorado since legalization, according to the state Department of Public Health and Environment, but the use of high-potency marijuana products rose significantly among teenagers from 2017 to 2019, and has more than doubled since 2015.
(The increased potency of today's products has been one of the loudest arguments used by proponents of cracking down on commercial pot, and they have a point — more refined forms such as distillate and THC crystalline weren't available in 2012, when recreational pot was legalized — but their repeated claims that marijuana was testing at 5 to 10 percent THC before legalization and products like wax, shatter and bubble hash didn't exist or weren't widely available are both untrue. Wax, shatter and potent flower were all widely available in Colorado medical dispensaries nine years ago.)
Garnett's bill would add several layers of protocol for medical marijuana patients and their physicians, including a required THC dosage amount and tracking system for patient purchases, as well as added medical reviews during patient applications. Medical marijuana concentrate sales limits would also be significantly reduced, and new medical patients between the ages of eighteen and twenty — a contributing factor to youth consumption, in the eyes of the bill's sponsors — would face additional obstacles to obtaining a medical marijuana card.
The bill would also set aside over $3.4 million in state funds for two areas of research, including a systematic review of the effects of high-potency marijuana products to be conducted by the Colorado School of Public Health, with the review's findings used to create a public education campaign. In a separate data-driven project, coroners would have to annually report the results of THC toxicology screens in suicide, overdose and accidental deaths for people under the age of 26 to the Colorado Violent Death Reporting System.
Facing a powerful advocate in Garnett and strong bipartisan support, many leaders in the marijuana industry believe that this measure will pass — though they expect amendments to come in the days ahead. Representatives from industry groups such as Colorado Leads and the Marijuana Industry Group gave input during the drafting of the proposal, and of the thirty-plus lobbying groups representing various marijuana businesses and industry factions, only one is officially opposing HB 1317. That lobbyist represents A Wellness Centers, a dispensary in Colorado Springs, where only medical marijuana sales are allowed. (Westword's attempts to reach A Wellness Centers were unsuccessful).
While Colorado Leads and the Marijuana Industry Group have said they support the bill's intent, both want it amended to require that the School of Public Health research also documents beneficial effects of medical marijuana, and that an independent review be done of the findings.
“We have heard concerns that minors may obtain marijuana products illegally, and identified areas in the law where we could thoughtfully and collaboratively make policy improvements to further safeguard Colorado teenagers,” Colorado Leads board president Chuck Smith says regarding his group's recommendation.
Smith says Colorado Leads will support the measure "if key adjustments are included in the final bill,” including changes to the research language and a provision requiring that all THC concentrate be individually packaged in servings of ten per gram by the beginning of 2023.
According to the Colorado Cannabis Manufacturers Association, a marijuana extraction trade organization, the concentrate packaging rules as currently written would increase production costs by 200 to 300 percent, and would likely "exceed the total annual revenue of all of our manufacturing members."
Marijuana extractors would also face a new daily limit on the sales of their products. Colorado's current limit for medical concentrate purchases is 40 grams of concentrate, but HB 1317 would cut that to 8 grams a day unless the patient is between eighteen and twenty, in which case the limit would be 2 grams per day; homebound and rural patients or those with proper doctor certification would be allowed to exceed the limits.
Garnett has said he's "totally fine" with making concentrate packaging rules more sustainable in the bill's language or pushing those details to state Marijuana Enforcement Division rulemaking, suggesting that concentrates could be split into serving sizes without adding excessive amounts of new packaging.
According to Garnett, additional amendments will likely come during HB 1317's next hearing before the House Finance Committee.
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