In an effort to curb a rising tide of abuse by teens and young adults, Colorado lawmakers are seeking to crack down on high-potency marijuana concentrates under a bipartisan bill that on Tuesday won unanimous approval from a House panel.
“Over the nine years that I've been a pediatrician in private practice, I've noticed more and more that the young people in my clinic have begun using more of these products ... and are using stronger products,” said Rep. Yadira Caraveo at a news conference ahead of the hearing. “Colorado has to exercise its responsibility to update regulations when markets shift and new products arise.
“I believe that we must exercise the authority vested in the legislature to close existing gaps in our laws, and to extend the standards that exist for conventional medicines to medical marijuana.”
The Thornton Democrat is serving as House Bill 1317’s prime sponsor in the House along with House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver. In the Senate, the legislation is being carried by Sens. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, and Paul Lundeen, R-Monument. Republicans Tim Geitner, the House Assistant Minority Leader from Falcon, and Kevin Priola, a senator from Henderson, are also signed on as sponsors.
As introduced, the bill:
- sends the Colorado School of Public Health $1 million per year for three years to conduct an analysis of existing research on the impact of high-potency THC marijuana and concentrates on physical and mental health, find gaps in that research and conduct studies to fill those gaps. The legislation also creates a scientific review council to review the findings in that analysis and make recommendations to lawmakers;
- directs the state Department of Public Health and Environment to compile a report on hospital and emergency room discharge data reflecting patients who display “conditions or diagnosis that reflect marijuana use;”
- directs coroners to order a toxicology screen to test for THC in non-natural deaths of those under 25 years old. The results of those screens would be required to be reported to CDPHE’s Colorado Violent Death Reporting System and the agency would be required to compile a report on those screens;
- lowers the purchase limit on concentrates for both medical patients and recreational consumers to eight grams per day, down from the 40-gram threshold adults are currently allowed to possess. For medical patients between ages 18 and 20, that limit drops to two grams per day;
- update the seed-to-sale tracking system for medical patients to ensure compliance with the new limits;
- mandates both medical and recreational dispensaries use packaging separating each gram of concentrate into at least 10 separate portions;
- requires medical patients ages 18 to 20 to consult with two different doctors, both of which would be required to diagnose “a debilitating or disabling medical condition,” and schedule follow up appointments every six months before receiving their medical cards;
- and adds a requirement for doctors who recommend medical marijuana to review patients’ mental health history on top of their physical health.
Advocates, including a concerned mother who had seen her daughter struggle with misuse of high-potency THC products to a longtime high school nurse who has seen the effects those products have on students, told those assembled at the news conference of their devastating potency on youth.
“Many of the symptoms that I see are extremely reminiscent of care that I gave to patients that were suffering for cocaine-induced heart attacks,” said Tammy Wollbrink, a registered nurse who spoke on behalf of the Colorado Association of School Nurses.
Priola also shared elements of his own son’s struggle with high-potency products, saying the bill was “personal to me in a way that no other piece of legislation has been in the 13 years I've been down here.”
“Since legalization in Colorado, the regulatory framework has failed to keep up with the evolution of the new products,” he said. “The industry has changed and we need to catch up with those changes.”
The news conference also drew an appearance from Attorney General Phil Weiser, who pointed to a CDPHE survey that found the use of high-potency THC products had increased from 4.3% of students in 2015 to over 20% in 2019.
“This is an alarming rise, and this House Bill 1317 represents an important and a critical response to this threat,” Weiser said.
Unlike in prior drafts of the bill that circulated earlier in the session, HB 1317 does not include limits on potency levels. A February draft with Caraveo and Lundeen signed on as sponsors included a 15% cap on THC, as well as several other provisions in the latest version of the bill, such as the medical patient tracking system and a ban on some forms of advertising.
Asked about a potential cap in the future, Garnett demurred.
“We are moving forward with what we think is the most responsible Colorado approach,” he said. “There are some who want us to go much further than we currently are. There are some that don't want us to do anything and what you have in front of you as a well-crafted, collaborative bill.”
The February draft of the legislation drew considerable pushback from the marijuana industry. Mason Tvert, the father of the voter-approved measure that legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, described it as “a heavy-handed attempt to move the clock back to an era of prohibition” while several in the industry complained to Colorado Politics about a lack of stakeholder engagement.
The latest draft appears to have alleviated those concerns, at least for some.
“We have been at the table for months to produce a balanced policy measure, and we very much appreciate that the conversation has shifted to a more evidence-based approach to cannabis regulation,” said Colorado Leads and Marijuana Industry Group, two high-profile players in the marijuana space, in a joint statement ahead of the bill’s release on Friday. The trade groups indicated they wanted to be “extra careful to strike the right balance between access to critical medicine and regulation.”
In a follow-up released Tuesday, Colorado Leads indicated it would back the bill with the addition of amendments designed to ensure the objectivity of the research into high-potency products and shape the Marijuana Enforcement Division’s rulemaking on tracking, consumer notifications and packaging.
But not all industry groups are on board.
Black Brown and Red Badged, a coalition of Black and brown marijuana business owners, on Friday released a statement of its own accusing the sponsors of not inviting business owners of color to the negotiating table.
According to Hashim Coates, BBRB’s executive director, the bill “has serious racial bias implications and racial blind spots.” Coates in the statement highlighted the provision on data collection stemming from toxicology screens.
“We all remember what happened to Michael Brown and George Floyd,” Coates said. “Unfortunately, the presence of drugs in a Black man’s system will always be used to justify their deaths. This sort of racial blind spot in legislative drafting is precisely why we must have Black voices in the room. Sadly, we have been cut out of conversation entirely.”
BBRB is not outright opposed to the legislation, but is instead seeking amendments to address its concerns.
The testimony on the bill before the House Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services Committee stretched for hours, alternating between emotional testimony from both supporters and those who opposed the legislation.
Supporters of the bill included medical doctors as well as some two dozen parents who found themselves in similar situations to Priola: with teenagers struggling with high-potency THC products after gaining access to it at school. Among those was Laura Phillips, who told the panel her daughter was raped at a high school party after being incapacitated by being given high-potency THC concentrate.
“How many times she was raped she does not know,” Phillips said. “My daughter, as with many other young adults, will live with this emotion turmoil for the remainder of their lives.”
On the other side of the issue were medical marijuana and their parents as well as some from the marijuana industry, who were vehemently opposed.
“The road to hell was paved with good intentions,” said Amy Dawn Bourlon-Hilterbran, the mother of a medical marijuana patient who uses high-potency products to treat ecliptic seizures. “A mother's tragedy should not be the inspiration for other mother's sons to be punished, and this bill could cost me my child.”
Jason Warf, the executive director of Southern Colorado Cannabis Council, pushed back on the notion that the bill’s sponsors had done stakeholder work with the industry.
“The majority of us only saw the draft when it was leaked to us last Thursday night, here we are three [business] days later in committee,” he said. “We don't shove a bill through like this with no stakeholder process. It's irresponsible to the industry, it's irresponsible to the patients and consumers we’re trying to respect and it's irresponsible to 20 years of legislative work.”
Susannah Grossman, the sales and marketing director for Green Dot Labs, testified that the provision requiring concentrates to be divided into 10 separate portions per gram was “arbitrary” and would be “outrageously costly,” bumping up costs by about 475%.
Coates told the panel the businesses he represented couldn’t sustain such a hit.
“This will certainly put our members out of business, full stop,” he said. This is nothing more than a backdoor prohibition.”
Grossman, meanwhile, said the provision would run counter to another backed by House Democrats seeking to reduce the use of single-use plastics and polystyrene containers.
“This new packaging requirement would mean far more plastic pollution contaminating our wildlife, waterways and ecosystems,” she said in calling for amendments.
Brad and Amber Wann, the proponents behind a bipartisan bill expanding medical marijuana use at school that was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis earlier this month, also testified in opposition to the bill. The Wanns told the panel the bill would undo their work on Senate Bill 56.
That bill stemmed from their advocacy on behalf of their son Ben, an epileptic who uses hemp oil to prevent seizures and relies on a nasal spray with THC to stop seizures if they occur. He was banned from keeping the nasal spray at school, leading a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers to pass a bill expanding access for Ben and others like him that have been given clearance to use medical marijuana products.
“My son wouldn't be updating his medical card and unable to use his bill at school to save his life,” Amber Wann said. “If he's going to be asked to pay more for his card in terms of a second doctor and have an MD sign off on his recommendation, which they can't and won't, our son loses his ability to have a medical card altogether, forcing him to be a criminal.”
Brad Wann was also critical of the stakeholder process from the perspective of young medical patients.
“It's OK to disagree with your neighbor, it's OK to have conversations and not be aligned with them but you got to know where they come from,” he said. “You have to sit down with the people and you have to talk to them, that did not happen in this bill.”
After 7½ hours of testimony on the bill, the panel adopted an amendment aimed at addressing the concerns of parents with children under the age of 17 that use medical marijuana products.
In closing testimony, Garnett pledged to continue working on some of the aspects of the bill that opponents highlighted but urged the panel to consider the guiding principle of the legislation.
“This is about protecting the developing brain and making sure that an 18-year-old cannot go into a dispensary and buy 400 doses of the highly potent product,” he said.
The committee voted 13-0 to advance the bill on to the House Finance Committee, where it on Thursday saw bipartisan opposition in passing 7-4.
It now heads to the House Appropriations Committee.