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A bill that would allow autism to be treated with medical marijuana, similar to the one vetoed last year by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, is one step closer to the desk of Gov. Jared Polis, who has promised to sign it.

House Bill 19-1028, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Edie Hooton of Boulder and Republican Rep. Kim Ransom of Lone Tree, was approved on a 10-1 vote Wednesday by the House Health and Insurance Committee.

Last year's House Bill 18-1263 was sponsored by Hooton and Rep. Jovan Melton of Aurora. Unlike the 2018 measure, this year's version doesn't ask for acute pain to be added as a condition that qualifies for medical marijuana. 

In his June 5 veto letter of HB 1263, Hickenlooper said, “While we are very sympathetic with families advocating medical marijuana … as a safer and more effective treatment for their children, we cannot ignore such overwhelming concerns from the medical community.”

Hickenlooper also said that using medical marijuana to treat autism “has yet to be fully studied by medical professionals and scientific experts entrusted to this role at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).”

The 2018 measure drew opposition from CDPHE and physicians from Children's Hospital and the Colorado Psychiatric Society. An executive order Hickenlooper signed the following day authorized the CDPHE to begin an 18-month study into treating autistic children with medical marijuana. However, in November, CDPHE announced it had awarded grants to researchers for studying the efficacy of CBD oil, not medical marijuana, for treating autism.

Hickenlooper's veto earned a rare criticism from the man who would succeed him. Polis, then a gubernatorial candidate and U.S. congressman, chided Hickenlooper in a June 5 statement for the autism veto and for two other vetoes dealing with marijuana.

"I hope to see these thoughtful, bipartisan bills to help Coloradans with autism ... reintroduced in the next legislative session," he had said. "If they are, and I'm governor when that happens, I will gladly sign them into law."

Psychiatrists and other physicians continue to oppose the bill, although CDPHE representatives were noticeably absent, likely because the governor favors the measure.

Dr. David Downs, representing the Colorado Medical Society, told the committee that the evidence on the use of medical marijuana to treat autism is still "very preliminary and limited."

"There's no clear evidence" that medical marijuana helps autism, and clear evidence that marijuana affects a developing brain, he said.

There were doctors who testified in favor of the bill. Medical marijuana is not a treatment for autism as there is no treatment for autism, said Dr. Stephen Elliott of Lakewood, a former emergency room physician. But it is palliative, he said. It helps children become "cognitive"; some learn to speak and others stop harming themselves, he said.

Wednesday's hearing, which lasted more than five hours, was standing-room only, packed mostly with parents and advocates for those with autism, some with their children in tow. Some testified about the problems their children face, including self-injury and attempts at suicide. Autumn Brooks said her son's primary care physician and psychiatrist have no idea that medical marijuana could treat autism. CBD oil is not enough, she said.

Stacey Linn is executive director of the CannAbility Foundation, which works with families who want to treat children with cannabis. Her son, Jack, was the inspiration for Jack's Law, which allows children to access their medical marijuana in school under supervision. Jack Splitt, who was disabled from cerebral palsy and dystonia, died suddenly at the age of 15, in 2016.

Linn told the committee that her son "was in tons of pain, but medical marijuana was the only thing" he used to live his life. Without it, and on the other pharmaceuticals prescribed for him, "he was almost comatose," and that took away any semblance of normal life.

Medical marijuana "gave my child the ability to go through life like a child would," she said.

The bill now goes to the full House for debate.

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