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Medical Marijuana Patient and Caregiver Numbers Decline

The ranks of Colorado’s medical marijuana caregivers are declining, serving fewer and fewer patients every month, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — and that’s without the state adopting new measures proposed to regulate caregivers.

The dip in caregivers has been significant in the year since sales of recreational marijuana started. In January 2014, 57 percent of all patients had signed up a medical dispensary or private caregiver to grow for them. One year later, that number had dropped to just 41 percent. While the CDPHE doesn’t regularly break down the data, snapshots of the registry provided by the department show that the majority of that 41 percent opts for a medical dispensary. As of November 2014, only 4 percent — or 4,684 patients — out of the roughly 116,000 people on the registry at the time had a private caregiver.

That number could soon go even lower. SB 15-014, a proposal pushed by Senator Irene Aguilar, a Denver Democrat who’s also a physician, would force caregivers to register the locations of their grows and limit them to five patients maximum; it was unanimously approved by the state Senate Health and Human Services committee last week. The bill would also require doctors recommending cannabis for severe pain to provide more information on patients. Currently, 93 percent of all medical marijuana patients report severe pain as a qualifying condition.

Aguilar says that number is too high. But is it really? Studies show that as many as 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain and that it affects more people than diabetes, coronary heart disease and cancer combined. According to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, 20 percent of all American adults experience chronic pain severe enough to disrupt their sleep at least two times a week. The number of patients on the Colorado medical marijuana registry who claim severe pain is around 105,500 — just below 2 percent of the total state population. The fact that 1.97 percent of the state’s residents experience chronic pain and have turned to cannabis to help is hardly surprising or shocking.

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Aguilar has said that her goal is to “stop inappropriate access to medical marijuana.” But this proposal would seem to have more to do with money than with keeping people from medical pot. In discussions of the bill, lawmakers have made it clear that the measure is a way to move some medical marijuana patients into recreational pot sales, which are taxed at higher rates than medical pot sales, in order to generate “valuable tax revenue” for state and local governments.

But according to state stats, that’s already happening. As of December, there were 115,467 active red cards on the registry. Despite the submission of 2,660 new applications that month, the number of active cards in January dropped by more than 2,000 patients to 113,453 people — indicating that more people actually dropped off the registry than were added in December. Even the number of minors on the registry, a group that has steadily grown for the last year or more, dropped by two patients, to a total of 460 kids at the end of January.

Aguilar’s bill is currently in appropriations and is likely to head to the full Senate soon for a vote.

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