Meet the Head of Colorado Medical Marijuana, and its 87,000 Patients

Medical Marijuana Registry program manager Natalie Riggins.
Medical Marijuana Registry program manager Natalie Riggins. Courtesy of CDPHE

Colorado voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, twelve years after voters approved medical marijuana and changed this state's relationship with pot. Without the inception of Colorado's medical marijuana program in 2000, there's a good chance we wouldn't be able to buy retail weed today.

More than five years after retail pot shops first opened, Colorado still has a robust MMJ program compared with that of most states where it is legal. The program is still evolving, too: During the last legislative session, new conditions were added that qualify for MMJ, and the medical practitioners who can recommend MMJ for patients also grew. To learn more about the state's MMJ expansion, we caught up with Natalie Riggins, program manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment MMJ Registry.

Westword: Seems like a lot of changes are taking place with the state's medical marijuana program this year. Can you remember so many taking place at one time before this?

Natalie Riggins: Since the time of its inception in 2001, there have been changes to the Medical Marijuana Registry program, many of which occurred as a result of bills passed by the legislature. Over the past several years, we have made process improvement and program efficiencies a priority, and we have become more adaptable to changes as they occur. As a result, we're prepared to implement the new legislation.

Of the new rules being ushered in via the legislature, did any of them receive official positions from the CDPHE? If so, what were they?

CDPHE did not provide any official positions on the legislation. However, we did give the legislature information about how much it would cost to update our processes, rules, materials and online system to align with the legislation.

Some of the changes to the state's program will add conditions for which opioids are often prescribed to the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana, and allow more health-care professionals (dentists, advanced registered nurse practitioners, etc.) to recommend MMJ within their respective fields. Do you anticipate a sizable amount of new patients applying because of this?

These changes are unprecedented in Colorado, so the amount of new patients that may register as a result of these changes is unknown. However, we are looking at ways to track this data.

Considering the new changes, how do you think Colorado's medical marijuana program stacks up compared to those in other states in terms of access and patient protection?

We are only able to speak to Colorado’s medical marijuana program, and we believe it provides good access and protection for patients.

In terms of access, we know that these new changes will allow patients with additional qualifying conditions access to medical marijuana if they choose. Patients are also able to access their medical marijuana cards quickly in the online registration system. For example, in 2018 more than 90,000 patients had their application processed in one to three business days, whereas before the online system patients had to wait weeks for their application to be processed. We still offer a mail application process, as well. Although applying online is fast, secure and convenient, currently out of approximately 87,000 patients, around 120 are submitting their application by mail.

As far as protection goes, the online registration system offers security and privacy for patients, caregivers and providers. The system, which went live in 2017, was developed to meet all state and federal standards for confidentiality, accessibility and security. Applying online through a secure, confidential account prevents a patient’s card or information from being compromised. Before the online system, the registry replaced approximately 6,900 cards in one year for patients who reported that their cards were lost, stolen or never received in the mail. Additionally, when patients apply online they can use their account to easily view or print their card and manage their own information. Overall, this results in better access and security of patient information.

Do patients still grow their own cannabis? How much of that depends on what part of the state they live in?

In July 2019, a total of 8,797 patients — which was about 10 percent of total registered patients — reported on their patient application that they grow all or some of their medical marijuana. We do not track where they grow or purchase their medical marijuana. Patients that grow who own medical marijuana can choose to register where they are growing [it] with the Colorado Department of Revenue’s Marijuana Enforcement Division.

What conditions are most often listed in Colorado by patients applying for medical marijuana? Has that changed much since the program began tracking that information?

The most frequently reported qualifying condition for adults is severe pain, while seizures is the most frequently reported condition for patients under the age of eighteen. These have been very consistent over the years. Statistics are publicly available on our website.
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Thomas Mitchell has written about all things cannabis for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate and general news along the way for publications such as the Arizona Republic, Inman and Fox Sports. He's currently the cannabis editor for
Contact: Thomas Mitchell