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Medical Marijuana Caregivers in the Senate's Crosshairs

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The Colorado Legislature is well into the 2015 session, considering bills that would repeal the ban on large-capacity gun magazines and prohibit powdered alcohol; there are also measures that deal with privacy from drones, college-tuition tax deductions and expanding rail service in southeastern Colorado. But if you’re a medical marijuana patient, Thursday is the day to mark on your calendar. That’s when a bill that would revamp the state caregiver system — sponsored by Senator Irene Aguilar, a Democrat from Denver who’s also a physician — is up for debate starting at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, February 26, in Senate Committee Room 352.

SB 15-014 would require medical marijuana-recommending doctors to provide more information on patients suffering from “severe pain.” (About 90 percent of all patients on the registry say they need MMJ for severe pain.) The bill would also mandate that primary caregivers register with the state, and it would prevent them from serving more than five patients. As proposed, it would allow the Marijuana Enforcement Division to share information with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in order to prevent patients from signing up with both a caregiver and a medical marijuana center.

For many pot proponents, the bill's real goal seems clear: to get patients off the medical cannabis registry and over to the tax-money-generating recreational cannabis side.

As a result, the proposal has seen a lot of pushback from the caregiver community, which argues that current laws regulating MMJ have been in place for years and that at this point, only a small number of caregivers are actually growing for more than six people. Caregivers also say they are being unfairly targeted as a source of “black market” cannabis, when any adult over the age of 21 can not only grow for him- or herself, but can also walk into a recreational shop to buy cannabis that could just as easily be diverted.

Some say that the number of caregivers has already been severely cut back. Rico Colibri Garcia, a cannabis activist, says that while caregiver numbers have been decimated by as much as 96 percent, there’s “now ten times the level of diversion after even when every caregiver was supplying the market,” he said. “A residence can only pump out so much product.”

At least one large industry group supports the bill. According to the Colorado Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, its members don’t want to take the blame and have their regulated market brought to an end by feds upset at marijuana being diverted from caregivers. The CCCC points out that the bottom line is being affected: State lawmakers have made it very clear that they want to see more money coming from the recreational program. “Colorado needs to address the lack of regulatory oversight that encourages illicit activity and puts a stain on the licensed community,” CCCC president Tyler Henson said in a release last week. “Unfortunately, when things like this happen, it is the licensed and regulated industry that often takes the blame.”

Except that it’s not: The only group that seemingly blames regulated shops for people who choose to grow over their amounts and divert product out of state is the chamber itself. In that same release, for example, Henson pointed to the story of a Pueblo man who was busted for growing more than 600 plants when he was only sanctioned to grow 75. “Caregivers like the Pueblo man last week are criminals, and they are using children as a shield to hide their illegal enterprises, which puts a negative view on the parents who are providing medicine to their kids,” Henson said.

Several lawmakers have openly targeted growers of high-CBD strains of cannabis, arguing that the caregivers are serving too many children medicine that hasn’t been safely tested and manufactured. You can expect to hear plenty more on Thursday.

Here's SB 15-014.

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