Medical marijuana bill: Brian Vicente says, "We're definitely feeling more positive"

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As of two days ago, the latest version of HB 1284, the bill to regulate the medical marijuana industry, looked something like this. But yesterday's hearing before the House judiciary committee resulted in a number of significant changes to the legislation.

Many of these alterations were good, says Brian Vicente, executive director of Sensible Colorado. "We're definitely feeling more positive as we're moving forward," he says. "It seems like patients' needs are becoming more and more a focal point of the bill."

Still, there were disappointments -- foremost among them the defeat of an amendment to consider making post-traumatic stress disorder a treatable condition for medical marijuana.

First, the good news from Vicente's perspective:

"Yesterday, they pulled out the locality ban" -- the portion of the legislation that would have allowed municipalities to put the kibosh on any dispensaries within their boundaries. "That was one of our major sticking points. We feel patients should be able to have access to medicine in their own communities and not have to bus out of town to access a medical marijuana center."

A possible reason for this tweak, Vicente believes, is the likelihood that the language would have been a lawsuit magnet. But he also feels "the bill as written gives a large degree of control to local governments in terms of regulating the time, place and manner of dispensaries: location, hours of operation, things like that. And I think the representatives realized that it would give locals the power they needed to really mold dispensaries into their communities. Whether that means putting them on the far edge of town in an industrial zone or on Main Street, those decisions are best left local."

Vicente was also pleased by an amendment "that says if a patient designates a caregiver, be that an individual or a medical marijuana center, they can still grow their own medicine -- supplement what they're buying from a center with what they're growing in their home. We feel that's important for indigent patients, and it stays in line with what voters had in mind when they gave citizens a constitutional right to cultivate their own medicine."

A less dramatic step involved approval of on-site consumption of edibles at dispensaries. That's good, Vicente believes -- but other forms of consumption remain verboten.

"We would prefer to broaden that to allow for vaporization, smoking, all forms of intake," he says. "That's important for lower-income patients who can't use marijuana in their federally subsidized housing or have children and don't want to medicate at home.

"I think most patients prefer to vaporize or smoke on-site. That's their preferred method of delivery. So I hope the decision about edibles opens the door to further discussion, and we can move forward with adding other forms of medication."

Another modest shift involves the percentages of product dispensaries must grow versus the amount that can be purchased from other centers -- a 70-30 ratio at present. While that's better than the 75-25 split in the last version of the bill, Vicente says, "there's still no cultivators license in the bill -- and we feel that to protect the supply chain and make sure that patients have access to a variety of strains, we need to make sure there are multiple licensed and regulated growers out there. Instead of having dispensaries being the sole providers of one strain of medicine, I think it makes sense for them to be able to purchase from multiple regulated caregivers."

A medical-marijuana grower made this same point in an interview published earlier this month: He argued that a vertical-integration model intended to make marijuana easier to track would actually spur more black-market sales while not significantly improving security.

To that, Vicente adds, "I think it would be much more sensible to license cultivators and regulate them and make sure they have contracts with dispensaries, as opposed to this vertical-integration model. My concern is, to some degree, cost: If you're strictly limiting who can grow, prices will go up for patients. And there's also the question of variety. If you have one warehouse growing a certain type of marijuana, and that's all that's allowed under the law, you're not going to have very good variety compared to six warehouses that are regulated and allowed to sell to dispensaries."

Nonetheless, the largest frustration for Vicente involved the PTSD determination, and the role played by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, led by previous Westword interview subject Ned Calonge.

"We receive dozens and dozens of contacts from veterans a year who say medical marijuana helps them," Vicente notes. "And states such as New Mexico and Maine and Rhode Island allow their sick and disabled veterans to have access to medical marijuana. So we were disappointed by the vote and by what I felt was shameless lobbying by the health department. It makes you wonder: What sort of a man lobbies against veterans' access to health care? And we have our answer: Ned Calonge."

CDPHE learned about a PTSD amendment to be offered by Representative Sal Pace by "subscribing to the Sensible Colorado newsletter," Vicente presumes. "We wrote that people should thank Sal Pace for bringing this amendment, because about 20 percent of veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder -- and it seems like a common-sense provision to protect these veterans who've defended our country. But instead, we have a health department working against these sick people.

"They dispatched two lobbyists who pulled out each member of the judiciary committee and made these shameful comparisons. They said giving marijuana to sick patients was like giving alcohol to an alcoholic, and it really swayed representatives. In some ways, that's not surprising, given the health department's history of working against medical marijuana. But to me, it was still shocking."

Shocking enough to convince Vicente to promote a statewide ballot initiative about medical marijuana regulation? The paperwork's been filed and he's continuing to prepare for a possible campaign: "We should be getting petition blanks in the next few weeks," he says. But he'll hold off if the bill the legislature passes satisfies most of the issues such a ballot measure would address -- and while no firm dates have been scheduled for the bill to go before the joint-budget committee, let alone the chamber as a whole, he expects things to continue progressing over the next couple of weeks.

The decision-making approach related to the initiative "is largely a consensus process," Vicente says. "We hear from patients, have meetings and talk about what their needs are. And most of the patients we hear from are feeling this is heading in the right direction. But certainly, there are issues of concern, and we're going to follow those closely and try to lobby as effectively as possible.

"There's still a long road to travel. But we're excited that this is establishing a uniform licensing system for dispensaries. It's simply the best way for many patients to get access to medical marijuana."

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