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MMJ for Autism Bill Clears First Obstacle, Heads to Senate

After more than a week of negotiations between lawmakers and advocates, a bill that adds autism spectrum disorder to Colorado's list of medical marijuana conditions passed the House of Representatives. It now heads to the Senate.

The legislative effort to qualify autism spectrum disorder for MMJ treatment was supposed to be a layup this year. Although ultimately vetoed by then-Governor John Hickenlooper, a similar bill soared through the General Assembly in 2018, with Governor Jared Polis even saying on the campaign trail that he would have signed such a bill into law.

Considering the precedent set by last year's bill, proponents of 2019's House Bill 1028 figured it would have an easy path to Polis's desk this year. And while they're back on track to get there, it took longer than expected.

HB 1028 stalled over ten days after passing its second House reading on January 25, with the bill's proponents and a group of lawmakers arguing over language in the measure that stipulated how autistic children would receive MMJ recommendations. However, both sides reached a compromise on Thursday, February 7, and the House unanimously voted for the bill.

The original version of the bill would have allowed autistic children to qualify for MMJ after approval from two physicians, one of whom must be a board-certified pediatrician, a board-certified family physician, or a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist. However, the most recent legislative effort for an MMJ condition, a successful bill adding post traumatic stress disorder in 2017, stipulated that children suffering from PTSD must receive MMJ approval from a pediatrician, family doctor or traditional physician who had a previous patient relationship with the child.

Representative Yadira Caraveo and Children's Hospital Colorado wanted an amendment to the new bill that would make the physician requirements similar to the PTSD stipulations, but parents of autistic children who lobbied for the bill rejected that language during the drafting process, arguing that it's extremely difficult to find traditional pediatricians to recommend medical marijuana.

"To say you could find a practicing pediatrician who will recommend cannabis to a child is virtually impossible," says marijuana lobbyist Cindy Sovine, who worked to push the bill pro bono. 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.

So for over a week, the two sides hit the negotiating table. Eventually, they 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.

The same amendment for children was added to a different bill that would allow MMJ treatments for any medical condition for which opioids are prescribed. If that bill or the autism measure passes, the stipulations for child PTSD recommendations would be updated so that they will all share the same language.

"It's not really a give. There's not any family that we know of that is showing up in a doctor's office and asking for a diagnosis and recommendations at the same time," Sovine says. "Adults can still do that — get a recommendation and diagnosis at once — which is in the state constitution."

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The autism bill is likely to be introduced in the Senate sometime next week, according to Sovine.

Parents with children suffering from autism spectrum disorder have said that full-specturm extracts of the plant can help their children's cognitive and verbal functions as well as subdue violent outbursts. Studies in Chile and Israel have shown MMJ to improve behavior among some autistic patients while being more effective and less harmful on the body than conventional pharmaceuticals such as Abilify and Risperdal.

In his veto of last year's autism bill, Hickenlooper issued an executive order to the CDPHE for a study on MMJ's effect on autism. According to the CDPHE, the research is still in the very early stages, but a working group of parents of children with autism and behavioral providers and physicians has formed to provide "input and guidance on the different parts of the study."

"We aim to gather and report on information to help us understand whether cannabis is more likely than not to provide therapeutic benefit to individuals suffering from [autism], and whether such anticipated benefit outweighs any anticipated harms," explains Dr. Daniel Vigil, the CDPHE MMJ research grants program manager.

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