Medical marijuana hearing sets up fight on the senate floor

Yesterday morning, we previewed a senate committee hearing on House Bill 1284, which is intended to regulate the medical marijuana industry, with Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente maintaining that he's ready to push a ballot initiative if the final results are subpar from MMJ advocates' perspective.

The hearing wound up evolving into a marathon, lasting from 2 p.m. until 11:30 p.m. last night. But the amendments approved by the committee are mostly procedural, with the exception of a two-year residency requirement that Coloradans for Medical Marijuana Regulation's Matt Brown sees as "fairly illegal."

That means battles over the most recent amendments floated by Senator Chris Romer, including any 21-and-under patient from being able to visit a dispensary, will likely take place on the senate floor. Here's Brown's take.

The hearing began off-topic. The committee "spent at least an hour, although it seemed longer, on a bill that would have adjusted the amount of water in toilets," Brown says. "For whatever reason, someone had calendared another bill ahead of medical marijuana -- and next year, if nothing else, they'll realize that if you're going to have a hearing about medical marijuana, it should be the only thing on the agenda."

That's because a veritable throng was on hand to offer public comment. The group included medical marijuana patients, who were allowed to testify early rather than wait for hours as happened at a previous public-comments forum at the Capitol, plus a legion of law enforcement types ranging from police officers to district attorneys, with arguably the biggest name being Colorado Attorney General John Suthers. These speakers didn't offer a lot of diversity. "They stayed incredibly on message," Brown says -- even when, in his opinion, the message was inaccurate.

For instance, he was frustrated when person after person either stated directly or implied that Amendment 20, which legalized medical marijuana in Colorado, establishes a five-patient-per-caregiver limit that's being ignored amid the rise of dispensaries. He offers a little history on the subject, which he feels the Denver Post regularly botches, too:

"The full, five-page Amendment 20 is linked on the Department of Health website, and you will not see the five-patients-per-caregiver limit anywhere in it," he notes. "The amendment passed in 2000 and went into effect in 2001. Then, in 2003, the CDPHE [Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment] held a private meeting and decided that they wanted to impose the five-patients-per-caregiver limit under their rule-making authority, because it wasn't showing up in other medical marijuana bills that were starting to be written.

"But in 2007, Brian Vicente of Sensible Colorado sued them, and the court rejected the CDPHE's rule, saying they couldn't impose it without a public hearing and public input. So the CDPHE went back to the drawing board, and you started seeing the first dispensaries coming above ground -- like Cannabis Medical in Denver. Then, in January 2009, patients on the medical marijuana registry received a letter from the health department saying they were going to consider the five-patient limit again. That led to a July hearing, where, after public input, the health board voted that the limit wasn't needed -- and that really opened up the industry."

There were more twists and turns regarding the limit after that. But the point for Brown is that the five-patient standard was a health department invention.

Law enforcement reps hinted otherwise: "That was a theme for all of them: 'We cannot pass this gross bastardization of Amendment 20 without going to the people, because the people voted on individuals caring directly for sick patients and the dispensary system is absolutely not appropriate based on what people voted on.' And that's just not true."

Once Suthers, the cops and the DAs had their say, advocates like Vicente, Apothecary of Colorado co-owner Wanda James and Full Spectrum Laboratories' Betty Aldworth spoke their piece. Along the way, Brown says, legislators asked plenty of questions -- the type that indicate many of them are still learning about the topic, despite months of debate in the legislature.

By night's end, the committee cast votes on numerous amendments. Here's the scorecard courtesy of a representative from Mendez Consulting, which is working with Brown:

L.105 -- withdrawn, Romer is planning on offering it at appropriations (this is one with the $35,000 fee)

L.106 -- withdrawn (would have required centers with 300+ patients to have massage therapist etc onsite)

L.107 -- Adopted (requires 2yr residency)

L.108 -- withdrawn (1000ft school ban)

L.109 -- withdrawn, Romer would like to offer it on the floor after he works with people on this, Newell is interested in it (edibles waiver)

L.110 -- withdrawn (excess product to nonprofit)

L.111 -- withdrawn, Romer wants to debate this one on the floor (under 21 ban in dispensaries)

L.112 -- Adopted (allows state charter banks, added in credit unions, to accept deposits)

L.113 -- Adopted (technical clean up; the second part of amendment moves violations under the criminal code)

L.119 -- Adopted, proposed by Foster, clarified language around local municipalities denying a renewal, struck lines 9-12 of amendment that dealt with public notice and hearings

L.120 -- Adopted, department of health amendment (clean up amendment, redefined caregiver and when patients card can be revoked - if knowingly went to a doc to get a recommendation and that doctor ended up losing right to recommend)

L.121 -- Adopted, proposed by Foster, state moratorium on licenses make local moratorium until state law is in effect, Newell voted no on this amendment.

The entire measure now goes to the appropriations committee on Friday, after which the full Senate beckons -- and as of now, language that allows city councils to ban dispensaries remains in place.

Brown and other advocates will fight for changes in that section and others as the process moves forward -- and he's confident that it will. Law enforcement types lobbied in unison for the whole bill to be tossed in favor of a ballot issue, the theory being that the public will reject the dispensary system. (Vicente, for one, believes voters would accept it.) But Brown feels all the other stakeholders want a measure to be passed.

"I see a lot of pride from the legislature that they've addressed this as openly and completely and pragmatically as they have," he says. "And the rules we're about to get are far and away better than any other state has attempted to do."

The Cannabis Therapy Institute sees things very differently. Page down to check out the CTI view:

HB1284 Passes -- Sad Day for Colorado Patients

{Denver} -- The Colorado state Senate Local Government Committee took hours of testimony yesterday on HB1284. One of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Chris Romer (D-Denver), was quoted in several articles yesterday saying that the bill is designed to shut down 80% of caregiving businesses in Colorado. The Committee hearing started at 2pm and finally adjourned at 11:30pm. The Committee voted in favor of HB1284 and some of its last minute amendments by a vote of 6 to 0, with Senator Cadman absent.

Laura Kriho of the Cannabis Therapy Institute says, "This is a sad day for patients. Not only have they been sold out by their lawmakers, but they have been sold out by well-funded dispensaries, and they have been sold out by so-called patient rights groups. This bill will destroy patients' access to their medicine, drive prices up, and force patients back into the black market. The will of the voters has been ignored once again by lawmakers, and sick and dying Colorado citizens will suffer."

"This is taking patient rights back over 100 years," says Timothy Tipton, a patient advocate with the Rocky Mountain Caregivers Cooperative "Things are going in the wrong direction. Patients in the 1800s had better access to cannabis medicine than they will under this new law."

In a departure from hearings in other committees, the Local Government Committee Chair, Sen. Gail Schwartz (D-Snowmass), allowed disabled patients to testify first. This was followed by several hours of testimony from law enforcement, including the District Attorney for Adams and Broomfield Counties, the District Attorney for El Paso and Teller Counties, the District Attorney for Jefferson and Gilpin Counties, the County Sheriffs of Colorado, the Colorado Chiefs of Police Association, the North Metro Drug Task force, and more. Most of the law enforcement testified against the bill, saying that they didn't believe the "dispensary model" was allowed under Colorado's medical marijuana constitutional amendment.

Several representatives of Coloradans for Medical Marijuana Regulation, a lobbying group hired by a handful of well-funded dispensaries who have been "working with" Senator Romer on gaining concessions friendly to big business. CMMR testified in favor of HB1284, but was against a dozen or so last-minute amendments to the bill that Senator Romer surprised them with that morning. Also testifying on the CMMR team was Brian Vicente from Sensible Colorado, an organization which claims to be in support of patient rights. Sensible asked for several amendments, but overall was satisfied with the bill that would eliminate 80% of patient's caregivers, force prices up, and force patients to use only one dispensary for their medicine.

Laura Kriho, the director of the Cannabis Therapy Institute, urged the Committee to kill HB1284 and urged lawmakers to form a statewide commission to study programs that have been working locally and recommend a bill that had a broad base of support. Mark Simon, an activist with the disabled community, testified that neither Sen. Romer nor anyone else had reached out to the disabled community to get their input on the bill.

Others who gave testimony against HB1284 were attorneys Robert J. Corry, Jr. and Lauren Davis; Laurel Alterman, owner of Altermeds dispensary in Louisville; Miguel Lopez of Mile High NORML; Robert Chase of Colorado Coalition of Patients and Caregivers; and the Colorado Springs Medical Marijuana Council. The mountain contingent was well-represented with Kathleen Chippi, owner of One Brown Mouse dispensary in Nederland; Jessica LaRoux of Twirling Hippy Confections and Mark Rose of Grateful Meds dispensary in Nederland all testifying eloquently against the bill.

The bill now moves to the Senate Appropriations Committee and then will be voted on by the full Senate. CTI is urging patient rights supporters to contact their state senators and urge them to vote No on HB1284.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts