An effort to expand access to medical marijuana in Colorado met a swift end on Thursday, when lawmakers shut it down in its first committee hearing.
Senate Bill 81 sought to increase the amount of medical marijuana concentrate a patient can buy per day and allow doctors to recommend medical marijuana via virtual telehealth appointments for some patients, among other changes.
The Senate Health and Human Services unanimously voted to kill the bill without testimony or discussion upon the request from the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Kevin Van Winkle.
Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch, said he wasn’t able to reach an agreement with opponents that would have allowed the bill to move forward. He vowed to keep pursuing the issue.
"We’ll continue to work hard and hopefully make progress to make sure families have access to their medicine,” Van Winkle said. “I’ve been hearing from constituents of mine from all across Colorado that they have trouble gaining access to the medicine that they’ve used for a long time.”
The bill would have rolled back some limits on medical marijuana that came from House Bill 21-1317, which lawmakers passed in 2021. That bill, in part, limited daily purchases of medical marijuana concentrate from 40 grams to 8 grams or 2 grams for patients under 21; restricted doctors to only recommend medical marijuana within their scopes of practice and with extra requirements; and, expanded tracking on patient purchases.
HB 21-1317 was passed in response to state data that found the use of extracted marijuana products had more than doubled among teenagers from 2015 to 2019, connecting marijuana use to the decline in youth mental health. Proponents of the bill suggested that medical marijuana patients between the ages of 18 and 20 were illegally supplying minors with marijuana products.
While SB 81 received bipartisan sponsorship in the Senate and House, many of the groups that backed HB 21-1317 stood against it, including One Chance to Grow Up. The nonprofit championed state data that shows the number of registered medical marijuana patients aged 18 to 20 decreased from nearly 3,500 to just over 1,500 since HB-1317 took effect early last year.
“Colorado still has a way to go to limit youth access to ultra-potent THC products," said Rachel O’Bryan, co-founder of One Chance to Grow Up, in a statement. “Senate Bill 81 is an effort to reverse the patient protections around the recommending and purchasing of THC concentrates that must be stopped by the legislature.”
Other opponents to the bill include the American Academy of Pediatrics, Colorado Medical Society, Colorado Association of School Executives, Colorado Chapter College of Emergency Physicians, Children’s Hospital Colorado, Colorado Association of School Nurses and Colorado Psychiatric Society.
While proponents of HB 21-1317 argued that its restrictions prevent bad actors from abusing the medical marijuana industry, opponents say it is hurting good actors, too, who rely on the drug to manage symptoms of epilepsy, autism, PTSD and other conditions.
Brad Wann said his son, Benjamin, has battled epilepsy since he was 3 years old. After a decade, Benjamin experienced seizures every four days, lasting longer each time. Then, after giving Benjamin medical cannabis oil in 2015, the seizures stopped.
Now 21 years old and still using the same medical cannabis oil, Wann said he fears Benjamin will lose access to this life-saving medicine.
“We’re very heartbroken about the committee,” Wann said. “We weren’t trying to carve up (HB 21-1317) and throw it away. We were just trying to make it so that it fits into our lives and it doesn't hurt kids and adults as they grow older.”
Wann said he fears his son’s dosage will change and be hindered by the daily limits established by HB 21-1317. SB 81 would have brought the daily limit back up to 40 grams or 8 grams for those between 18 and 20 year old, though it would have kept the monthly limits the same.
Wann also emphasized the need for telehealth in medical marijuana, saying it is difficult for people in rural areas or people who are homebound to visit doctors in person.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order temporarily allowing medical marijuana physicians to conduct appointments virtually, but the order expired in 2021 and the legislature rejected a bill to make the policy permanent.
SB 81 was backed by the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition, Colorado Cannabis Manufacturers Association and Cliintel Capital Management Group.
Wann said he will continue the fight for legislation to improve access to medical marijuana — in addition to his fight against Polis, who he sued in 2021 to try to stop the implementation of HB 21-1317. A Denver District Court dismissed the lawsuit in 2022, but Wann said they are in the process of appealing.
The sponsors of SB 81 aren’t done fighting, either. Van Winkle said he’s in talks with Polis and the legislature to develop another bill, though “time will tell” if it will happen this session. And sponsor Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, D-Longmont, said the issue of access for medical marijuana patients is not going away.
“We will continue to work to do everything we can to make sure they have access,” Jaquez Lewis said.
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