Live blog: The Colorado Health Department's medical marijuana hearing

The Latest Word is at a Colorado Board of Health's hearing, where the board will consider new medical marijuana regulations that some believe will jeopardize the newly booming industry, as Joel Warner reported last week ("Will Monday be judgment day for Colorado's medical marijuana industry?"). We'll update throughout the day with observations, musings, and maybe some tips on where you can get the good stuff.

9:15 a.m.: The hearing is in conference room 250 of the Tivoli Student Union on the Auraria Campus. The room is big, with exposed brick on the walls and pipes running across the ceiling. Hundreds of people are seated in hard plastic chairs, facing the board of health, which is seated at a horseshoe-shaped table on a stage at the front of the room.

Board President Glenn Schlabs is giving introductory remarks. He described the format and procedure of the hearing: a board presentation first, then testimony from groups integral to the medical marijuana cause, including Sensible Colorado and Colorado NORML. The hearing will break for lunch and resume with public comments until 4 p.m.

Some other tips from Schlabs:

"Stay hydrated. It's going to be a long day."

"The use of marijuana is not authorized on the Auraria Campus."

9:40 a.m.: Ron Hyman, the state's registrar of vital statistics, is going over some background and statistics. Some interesting facts:

There are eight conditions for which the use of medical marijuana is approved: cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, cachexia, severe pain, severe nausea, seizures and persistent muscle spasms.

The industry is truly booming. Hyman estimates that by the end of this year, there will be 15,000 medical marijuana patients. There are currently 9,112. In 2007, there were about 2,000.

Managing the registry is requiring more and more resources. Every day, the registry gets about 125 pieces of mail related to medical marijuana. "That's more than I receive for births and deaths now," Hyman says. The registry also gets about 40 phone calls and 30 e-mails a day.

Fraud is becoming an issue. For example, Hyman says, he's seeing signatures on documents that are not authorized by the patient. Hyman says he now employs a full-time fraud officer to verify documents submitted to the registry.

The registry doesn't license medical marijuana dispensaries. No one does. (For more on dispensaries, check out Warner's February 4 story, "Medical marijuana has become a growth industry in Colorado.")

10 a.m.: Ned Calonge, the state's chief medical officer, is testifying about the definition of "primary caregiver." He says the dispensaries that serve hundreds of patients are not "caregivers" and they're not in line with the intent of the amendment passed in 2000 that authorized medical marijuana in Colorado. He says the amendment made clear that "distribution of marijuana (would) still be illegal in Colorado."

Someone in the audience coughed and said "bullshit."

10:10 a.m.: Calonge just held up a copy of Westword, which he described as a "popular publication," and pointed to the many medical marijuana dispensary ads as evidence that there are lots of them -- and some are not on the up and up, agreeing to diagnose patients for a fee.

He also said that "prioritizing" the growing medical marijuana program would take resources from other public health programs, including disease control and prevention. He's not a fan of doing that. Medical marijuana, he said, is of "unproven public health benefit and modest private health benefit."

10:30 a.m.: Michael Lee -- the owner of the state's largest and oldest dispensary, Cannabis Therapeutics in Colorado Springs -- is testifying in favor of some of the proposed changes. But he hasn't yet addressed the proposal, which would limit the number of patients each caregiver, including dispensaries, can serve to five. He's talking about his dispensary.

He says he has over 400 patients, whom he feeds every day for free, as well as takes care of their other needs. And he says he does it all "because the state cannot and will not." "You're not hurting me and the dispensary," he says of the proposal. "You're killing every one of these patients."

The crowd erupts in cheers.

10:35 a.m.: Helen Morgan, a deputy district attorney in Denver in charge of the drug unit, is testifying that the medical marijuana rules are confusing.

Prosecution is inconsistent, she says; in some jurisdictions, a home with 300 or 400 marijuana plants whose owner claims to be a primary caregiver might be prosecuted for growing pot, while in other jurisdictions, the owner would not "because of the fear and misunderstanding."

10:45 a.m.: A few police officers have testified in support of the proposed changes. Lieutenant Jerry Schiager of the Northern Colorado Drug Task Force is saying the current rules make it difficult for law enforcement to differentiate between legitimate medical marijuana providers and people selling pot on the street.

The crowd boos loudly.

"There is no regulation and no way to track where the product is going," Schiager says. "This certainly isn't how we handle any other medication."

College kids are getting themselves on the registry, growing marijuana in their houses and then selling it on campus, he says. He points out that the average age of males on the registry is 23.

11 a.m.: Eleven people testified in favor of the proposed changes. The testimony in favor is now over. (When Schlabs announced this, the crowd cheered and clapped.) The board is taking a 10-minute break.

11:12 a.m.: The hearing has resumed. It's running about an hour behind schedule. The board is now asking some additional questions of Calonge.

11:15 a.m.: The questions to Calonge weren't particularly illuminating.

Brian Vicente -- a lawyer who runs Sensible Colorado, a five-year-old nonprofit that serves as the state's primary resource on the medical marijuana law -- is now testifying. His is the first of three group presentations. Sensible Colorado is against the proposal.

The crowd is clapping for Vicente. The board asks them to hold their applause.

11:20 a.m.: Vicente asks the board to look around the room. These people came here today, he says, because they "legitimately believe they will be hurt if these laws are passed." He asks everyone who wants the board to vote against the proposal to stand. Almost everyone in the room does. Some, including those in wheelchairs, wave their hands.

11:30 a.m.: Dr. Paul Bregman is testifying against the proposal. He says he's done medical chart review for large dispensaries since 2007. He's seen about 1,000 patients and charts. He implores the board to "just say no." "More regulations drives the black market, and patient care suffers," he says.

11:40 a.m.: The board is asking questions of Bregman. One board member asks whether he actually sees patients or just reviews their charts. "I would always have to see the patient before I put the X and sign my name," Bregman says.

11:55 a.m.: Gary Lindstrom, a former police officer and state representative and current college professor, is testifying. He says his wife has multiple sclerosis and does not smoke marijuana. But, he says, many people at the nursing home where she lives do.

He's against the proposed changes. Reducing the number of patients each caregiver can serve would lead to the creation more caregivers, he says -- possibly caregivers who don't know what they're doing. "Let's allow patients to purchase medicine in a secure, indoor atmosphere," he says.

Noon: Todd Young, a patient and caregiver, testified that he started using medical marijuana after suffering debilitating injuries in an accident where he prevented a heavy box from falling on a small child.

He asked nine of his patients to come forward. All were men and mostly all were wearing suits, as was Young. "These are my people," he says. "If this rule passes, these people will no longer get safe access to medicine. They will suffer and some of them may die."

12:10 a.m.: Damien LaGoy testified. He's a 100-pound AIDS patient.

He unloaded a grocery bag full of pill bottles onto the table next to the microphone podium. "I take these pills to keep AIDS at bay," he says. He also uses medical marijuana.

"If I don't have a caregiver, I will get sick and die," he says. "Do not vote to hurt me."

12:15 p.m.: Sean McAllister, co-founder of Sensible Colorado, says the board of health doesn't have the authority to regulate the medical marijuana rules. "This is either in the legislative hands or back in the voters' hands," he says. "Not with this board."

The crowd applauds.

12:35 p.m.: Attorney Robert Corry, who has represented hundreds of medical marijuana patients, testified against the proposed changes. "People are going to be harmed," he says. "This is a life or death issue for this board."

His wife, Jessica Peck Corry, also testified. She says she's a conservative, pro-life Republican. The stigma that medical marijuana patients are a bunch of 23-year-old stoners is not true, she says. She said she wishes she'd had the courage to sign up for the medical marijuana registry when she was partially paralyzed a couple of years ago after a surgery, throwing up from all the morphine she used to control her pain.

12:50 p.m.: Attorney Warren Edson, a prominent medical marijuana lawyer, is testifying. He says medical marijuana is safe. "If all these people are horrible like law enforcement is saying, where are all the criminal cases?" he says. "Where is the public outcry?

12:55 p.m.: Edson ended his testimony to great applause.

The board is going on a 45-minute lunch break.

Note: Westword writer Jared Jacang Maher will be taking over live-blogging duties after the break. Check back for updates.

1:00 p.m.: Hearing officer calls a 45 minute break for lunch...munchies.

1:30 p.m. : The most popular food court eatery during the lunch break: Subway. Beating out Taco Bell and the Chinese food place. Interesting.

1:50 p.m. Second part of the hearing has begun The Board of Health is questioning some of the earlier people who testified.

During the break I spoke with Elizabeth and her adult son Tony, who says he has arthritis in his legs and is licensed for medical marijuana. Elizabeth was in a wheelchair; she said she's been battling cancer for several years. She was against marijuana her whole life until Tony got her to use marijuana for her symptoms. She now uses it in tea and says it helps her immensely. "I never ever would have thought I would have used marijuana," she told me. "My mind has been changed a lot."

Tony grows his marijuana himself. The only person he provides it to is his mom.

Both are supporters of medical marijuana, but their particular situation would not be effected by the new rules that the Board is considering today that will essentially limit the number of patients a caregiver can provided marijuana to.

The board will soon be hearing testimony from the public.

2:12 p.m. Kevin, a military veteran, has begun his testimony by asking all the veterans in the room who use medical marijuana to stand and approach the front. About thirty men and women get up and read their names and military backgrounds into the microphone. Several say they served in Vietnam. At least six people say they served in Iraq. They get a standing ovation from the crowd, which has thinned slightly since the earlier session, but is still energetic.

Kevin, a double amputee, says he earned two Purple Hearts before being honorably discharged on disability. Testifies that the painkillers didn't work to help his pain, and that he began using marijuana in 2005. He had to get it on the street at first, but now through the medical marijuana law can get it through the Peace Medical Center, where he says he also gets chiropractic and reflexology care along with 300 others.

"Should this measure be passed it will make it extremely difficult for these medical centers to operate," he says. "Why would anybody want to set a limit on the number of people we can get and keep healthy?"

2:26 p.m.: The board chair says that public testimony portion of the hearing will begin. "The good news is it's a beautiful day," he says. "The bad news is that 300 people signed up to testify."

The crowd breaks out into applause. Board asks people to please keep testimony brief. The first man testifying, Robert, a quadriplegic, takes a minute to get to the microphone because he is in a wheelchair.

Robert's issue is with the prices that the medical marijuana dispensaries currently charge. "It's very hard for me to afford food and medicine in the same month," he says. "All of these dispensaries are charging street prices, and I can afford medicine for the first part of the month and then I'm miserable."

2:38 p.m. A professor from Colorado Springs gave a short lecture about marijuana chemistry and nature. A businesswoman in the med marijuana industry bragged about her credit score.

One woman whose husband has cancers says how hard it will be for her to learn how to set up a $5,000 grow room on her own to provide him with "medicinal marijuana and edibles" to help him get through chemotherapy treatment. They like the providers they go to now. She says the board will make a mistake by limiting the definition of a primary caregiver.

2:45 p.m.: "I'm in chronic pain... I love my caregiver! Please don't take our caregivers away."

2:55 p.m.: The last two people who testified ran though one of those fact lists about marijuana, like how no person has ever died from an overdose of pot. Brings me back to my days working at the Penny Lane coffee shop in Boulder during the open mic night circa 2003. Go hemp, fuck Bush!

3:10 p.m. A citizen has yet to testify in support of the Board's proposed changes. Some guy with a ponytail is on a sermon about "the delicate balance" patients and their providers. Another guy just quoted scripture.

So in the meantime how about I list the actual language of the proposed change to the definition of who can be a provider of med marijuana:

i) "Primary care-giver" means a person other than the patient and the patient's physician, who is eighteen years of age or older and has significant responsibility for managing the well-being of a patient who has a debilitating medical condition.

iii)"Significant responsibility for managing the well-being of a patient" means assisting a patient with daily activities, including but not limited to transportation, housekeeping, meal preparation, and shopping, and making any necessary arrangement for access to medical care and/or services.

3:16 p.m. One caregiver testifying criticizes the Denver Police Department for not solving the murder of local med marijuana activist Ken Gorman.

Here's an article from the New York Times about Gorman's murder and the dangers often faced by providers of med marijuana.

3:27 p.m.: I didn't catch his name, but one man (he's disabled, in a wheelchair) is testifying how this proposed change in law would require that his current primary care provider, the CNA that comes to his home and helps him bathe and clean, to suddenly become a marijuana cultivator. Maybe it's just me, but these seem to be somewhat different skill sets.

3:43 p.m.: Board declares a 10-minute break. One thing I'm wondering, though. Everyone is talking about how this proposed revision will force med marijuana to buy their supplies out on the street. But how much are street prices for pot in Denver? According to
Denver Marijuana Prices: Prices are pretty normal so like 50 for an 1/8 of dank. Denver Colo Kind Bud $50.00 an eigth and 90 quarter swag from brick mexican $50.00 an ounce another reporter added: " $30 a quarter of schwagg"

4:20 p.m.: IT'S 420 BRO! FouurrrrTwenntteeeeeee! But, seriously, this is very boring.

The crowd has greatly diminished since this hearing began some 200 hours ago. And they're only on number 46 out of the 300 people who signed up to testify. Still people are committed to telling their stories, which range from heartfelt tales of battling disease and debilitating ailments -- "My foot got run over by my boyfriend"-- to well-thought legal arguments, to the most mind-numbing hippy grandstanding that frankly makes me want a stiff drink. Thank god my drug of choice is legal!

4:50 p.m.:Another issue that has been brought up in public testimony is another change to the med marijuana registry that the Board is considering requiring that applicants provide picture identification that would include their name, address and social security number. Some fear that this information could be used by law enforcement to target med marijuana patients and caregivers. Or, worse, they argue if such a list fell into the hands of criminals it could put legal users and providers at risk of theft.

But the proposed change states that no portion of a patients SSN would be included on their registry identification card. The revision proposed by attorney Robert Corry would also allow the patient to maintain the confidentiality of their caregiver "and not disclose the caregiver's identity or address if such confidentiality is necessary to protect the safety and property of the caregiver."

If the safety of patients and caregivers is the board's concern, however, the question becomes whether it's better to have a few larger, professional facilities providing the marijuana or hundreds of amateurs providing for five patients or less?

5:24 pm: They just called speaker number 88... out of 350. Although many of the people who signed up to testify have left.

So the public testimony portion could go for an hour or more. After that, the board will begin deliberation and hopefully take a vote.

There is some possibility that the board might table the matter for another hearing. But, according to some of the people I've spoken with, such a move would be unprecedented.

Brian Vicente of Sensible Colorado says that if the changes pass, then "we'll be in court tomorrow morning" filing a lawsuit against the state.

5:33pm Have to leave and get back to the office. We will try to update this blog as to the outcome of the hearing.

And thank you to the kind grey bearded gentleman who gave me a "Hemp I Scream!" ice cream bar. I was starving!

6:05 p.m.: Melanie Asmar here. Taking over for Jared Jacang Maher. Tag team, yo.

6:15 p.m.: The board is taking another short break.

6:20 p.m.: The hearing has resumed ... with number 135 out of 350.

6:25 p.m.: A kid named Justin is telling the board he's smoked marijuana since ninth grade. He says it's really helped him with his ADHD, his calculus grade, his spirituality. His proof? "I got a 780 on my SAT blazed out of my mind."

6:30 p.m.: A guy who runs a dispensary -- his last name is Walsh, I think -- testified that he has IBS -- irritable bowel syndrome? -- and throws up reflexively. The only thing that stops it is marijuana, he says.

6:40 p.m.: Josh, a law student at DU who had a fellowship to work with Sensible Colorado, testified that the board needs to bring all stakeholders -- police officers, patients, caregivers, doctors -- to the table to create the regulations.

6:45 p.m.: Ken Wilson is testifying that he isn't a medical marijuana patient because he can't afford it -- but he would like to be. He says he needs it for his health problems, not because he wants to get high, play XBox and listen to reggae.

6:50 p.m.: A guy who runs a dispensary called Medical Cannabis Colorado just testified. He said he has 200 patients, personally. The board asked him a bunch of questions.

Do you feel it's difficult to care for 200 patients? He says it's the hardest job he's ever had but he has a big heart and he loves it.

How do you keep track of Mr. Jones' prescription and Mr. Smith's at the same time? He attributes his success to the iPhone, on which he keeps photos of all his clients and their medical preferences.

How do you know your patients don't give their marijuana to somebody else? He says he's confident they don't. A board member pipes up, pointing out that there's no way to regulate that: "People give each other prescription drugs all the time." The crowd cheers.

6:55 p.m.: Oops. The board chair says he made a mistake; there weren't 350 people signed up to testify. There were 168. And number 168 just testified.

Now he's inviting people who didn't sign up to say something.

7:05 p.m.: The non-signer-uppers: A guy with full-blown AIDS says he uses medical marijuana instead of a taxing regimen of pills. A guy who represents a dispensary in Colorado Springs points out that the dispensaries pay about $5,000 a month in sales taxes -- a benefit for the state. A guy says he's not a criminal and to please stop treating him like one. A guy complains about his caregiver.

7:10 p.m.: The public testimony is over.

The board just voted to go into executive session to discuss with their attorney what will happen if they approve the proposed changes and the lawsuit that has been threatened is filed. The board chair says the executive session will only last 10 minutes. "We are coming back, just so you know," he says.

7:27 p.m.: The board isn't back yet. Boo. The room is very chatter-y, although there are maybe only 50 people left. TV cameramen are setting up their cameras. It's time to make some news, already! Seeeeeeeeeriously.

7:40 p.m.: The board members are filtering back in. Several are seated.

7:45 p.m.: The hearing has resumed. A couple board members are making comments. They both say they feel the board erroneously left out stakeholders when coming up with proposed regulations. They also say they're uncomfortable with the number of five patients to each caregiver. They say they don't understand how that number was arrived at.

7:50 p.m.: Board chair Schlabs to people who testified against changes: "I don't feel compelled to fashion a regulation that appeals to you, as much as I respect you."

7:52 p.m.: FYI: If the board passes the proposed changes, they would go into effect August 30.

8:10 p.m.: The board is discussing stuff in board-speak. They're trying to make a motion.

8:20 p.m.: The board passed something! But it doesn't have to do with limiting the number of patients. Nor is it very exciting. It has to do with defining "caregiver" as a person who is over 18 and has "significant responsibility of managing the well-being of a patient who has a debilitating medical condition."

8:25 p.m.: FYI: The board is breaking apart the proposed changes and approving or not approving them one by one.

8:32 p.m.: A motion to further define "caregiver" as someone who does housekeeping, makes food for patients, drives them places and gets them marijuana -- basically the coolest mom ever -- failed. The crowd clapped.

8:37 p.m.: The board is debating whether to vote on limiting the number of patients tonight or convening a stakeholder group to try to come up with a compromise.

8:45 p.m.: The board rejected the proposal to form a stakeholder group.

8:49 p.m.: A motion to define "caregiver" as someone who cleans your house OR makes you food OR drives you places OR gets you marijuana passed. So basically, all a caregiver would have to do is provide medical marijuana. The crowd cheered loudly. Someone whistled.

8:55 p.m.: Score one for medical marijuana! A motion to limit the number of patients to five narrowly failed. The crowd whoops and cheers.

9:05 p.m.: The board corrected a typo. The hearing is (hopefully) winding down after twelve hours. People are leaving. TV cameras are chasing them.

9:15 p.m.: It's over! Hearing adjourned. Lotsa clapping. People shuffle out.

9:20 p.m.: There is a gaggle of reporters around Calonge. "The board wasn't convinced by our concerns," he says. He adds that the state doesn't "have the resources to enact what they just told us to enact."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar