Medical marijuana bill passes first hurdle

By Ernest Luning

Medical marijuana patients and their doctors would face tighter restrictions under a bill approved Wednesday by a Colorado Senate committee that heard hours of emotional testimony from a standing-room-only crowd mostly opposed to the proposed rules.

State Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, answers a question on the medical marijuana bill Wednesday at the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
Photo by Brad Jones/The Colorado Statesman

“I think this is the beginning of the end of the Wild West,” said Senate Bill 109 sponsor Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee waved the bill ahead on a 6-1 vote.

His pronouncement was met with jeers from some of the more than 100 medical marijuana patients and advocates who packed the Old Supreme Court Chambers to argue against the bill. They testified Romer’s bill will burden patients with unwarranted costs, discourage doctors from recommending treatment, and shut down access to a right enshrined in the Colorado constitution.

“We’re talking about patients with serious medical conditions,” said Daniel Pope, a Longmont resident with Muscular Dystrophy who said medical marijuana is likely slowing the progression of his disease. “This bill adds expenses and additional hurdles, and is very harmful to the people who need medical marijuana.”

Pope was among a group of about 50 people with the Sensible Patient and Provider Coalition who rallied on the steps of the Capitol before the committee hearing.

Attorney Brian Vicente is a leading legal advocate for medical marijuana rights.
Photo by Brad Jones/The Colorado Statesman

“I cannot afford this bill,” said William Chengelis, a disabled veteran. He said he was forced to go outside the Veteran’s Administration system to find a doctor who could recommend medical marijuana to treat injuries after his VA doctors prescribed a powerful narcotic. The VA, along with other health care providers funded by federal dollars, prohibits its doctors from considering medical marijuana for patients.

Chengelis objected to the bill’s requirement that he pay to see an outside doctor multiple times to qualify for his annual medical marijuana card.

“It doesn’t make sense to me (that) we are going to be strapped with excess fees,” he said, arguing that indigent and disabled patients can’t afford to see doctors outside their usual health care system.

Backers of the bill — law enforcement and public health officials and some medical marijuana dispensary owners anxious to have the state endorse their operations — asked lawmakers to approve the measure, which would require doctors to maintain a “bona fide relationship” with patients, including conducting a physical exam and follow-up treatment. The bill also limits which doctors can recommend the drug and prohibits financial conflicts of interest between doctors and medical marijuana suppliers.

“This is addressing clear abuses within this issue that have been going on the last year and a half,” said Ted Tow, representing the Colorado District Attorneys Council. “You cannot deny that there is any problem. There is a problem, and this bill is an essential step in reining in this problem.”

Republican state Sen. Nancy Spence is co-sponsor of a bill to clarify Colorado law regarding medical marijuana.
Photo by Brad Jones/The Colorado Statesman

“We are encountering scenarios very much outside the intent of Amendment 20,” testified Jim Gerhardt, a Thornton police officer, representing the Colorado Drug Investigators Association. Calling the bill “a step toward the proper implementation of Amendment 20,” he warned the proliferation of dispensaries is causing the street price of marijuana to rise and, with it, “all the crimes, violence, and problems go up.”

“This problem has become a law enforcement nightmare,” Gerhardt said.

“If it’s a policeman’s nightmare, I’d just have the suggestion to wake up,” retorted Joe Beaver, board president of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, in later testimony.

Beaver acknowledged that his group is “concerned about the abuses,” but asked lawmakers to keep patient concerns foremost.

“Those of us using medical marijuana or who have a large stake in this would like to work with the health community to help formulate the rules,” he said. “The first rule, is to do no harm. Don’t make it hard for people who need this medication.”

“This issue has sparked a huge debate in the disability community,” said Mark Simon, a longtime lobbyist for the disabled community. Noting that Colorado has more than 500,000 people with disabilities, Simon said more than half of them don’t have a primary care doctor.

Aurora Democratic Sen. Morgan Carroll, center, expresss concerns over a proposed amendment that would have removed osteopathic doctors’ ability to prescribe medical marijuana.
Photo by Brad Jones/The Colorado Statesman

“Most of these folks get health care through community health care, where they’re likely to never see the same doctor twice,” Simon testified. The bill’s requirement that medical marijuana patients maintain a relationship with a doctor “will preclude a large number of people with disabilities,” he said.

It’s the first of two bills to come before lawmakers this year as officials grapple with an exploding industry that has mushroomed over the last year from a shadowy underground with a few thousand patients to street-corner dispensaries throughout the state serving so many patients officials can’t keep up with demand for registration cards.

On top of roughly 20,000 residents already holding medical marijuana cards, state health officials are facing a backlog of another 20,000 applications and project 75,000 more will apply to use the drug in the coming year. It’s this tidal wave of applicants — spurred by changes in state and federal regulation last year, fueled by public attention to the thriving industry — that has officials worried the medical marijuana registry is turning into a backdoor authorization for recreational use in a state that shot down marijuana legalization at the polls in 2006.

After committee members remark that they did not have a copy of Amendment 20, Colorado's voterapproved medical marijuana law, attorney Robert Corry offers up his copy, drawing hoots and laughs from the audience.
Photo by Brad Jones/The Colorado Statesman

Another bill, which promises to draw even more heated opposition, could land in the House of Representatives next week. That bill, sponsored by Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, and Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, is based on proposals by Attorney General John Suthers and the County Sheriffs of Colorado and would impose a strict limit on the number of patients a medical marijuana supplier could serve, effectively shuttering hundreds of dispensaries.

Romer earlier this month abandoned a comprehensive bill he’d been crafting for months — covering everything from licenses for growers to regulations for dispensaries — citing the intransigence of both sides in the heated debate.

“Significant portions of law enforcement and the [medical marijuana] community are at this point unwilling to find common ground,” Romer wrote in a Huffington Post column announcing his omnibus bill’s demise.

But he held out the prospect that the two bills before the Legislature this year — the Senate bill concerned with doctor-patient relationship and the House bill defining caregivers — could emerge as one.

“There may ultimately be one bill,” Romer said after the Senate bill won committee approval.

“We are opposed to this bill,” medical marijuana attorney Robert Corry testified. Corry, who said he has been representing medical marijuana patients and caregivers for nine years, since Colorado voters legalized medical marijuana by approving Amendment 20 — “before it was lucrative, before it was cool” — called the proposal an “unprecedented assault on the doctor-patient privilege.”

Corry has promised a court challenge to laws restricting access to medical marijuana and says he will mount a ballot initiative this fall if the Legislature goes too far.

Noting that Colorado voters approved medical marijuana for a host of debilitating medical conditions, Romer pointed to signs he said indicate abuse of the system.

While cancer, HIV/AIDS and glaucoma patients together account for roughly 750 of the 20,000 medical marijuana patients currently registered with the state, 15,505 patients cite “severe pain” as their reason for requesting a card.

“Chronic pain is one of the most debilitating things known,” Romer said, “but it probably doesn’t include an earache.”

There does seem to be an “epidemic of chronic pain occurring in Colorado,” said Ned Calogne, chief doctor at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Along with Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, the bill’s other Senate sponsor, Romer led off nearly three hours of testimony before the committee by introducing Calogne, who said state officials are alarmed by statistics that show a few doctors are writing the bulk of medical marijuana recommendations.

Five doctors account for half the recommendations, he said, and a single doctor issued 700 in a single month.

“It does raise concerns perhaps a bona fide doctor-patient relationship doesn’t exist,” he said. The bill establishes sanctions for doctors the state determines are issuing recommendations to patients who don’t meet requirements.

Corry warned against singling out doctors, reminding lawmakers that patients often have to turn to medical marijuana specialists because so many doctors either won’t consider writing recommendations or are forbidden from doing so by their employers.

“The inevitable result of this bill will be the [state board of health] conducting witch hunts,” he said.

Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, cast the lone dissenting vote, saying he might support the final bill but “can’t reach a comfort level with changes we’ve made” after the committee approved several amendments. He said he wanted to study the final bill to make sure it wasn’t defying the will of voters.

“I’m dubious about the whole enterprise of medical marijuana,” Mitchell said during testimony. “It seems to me largely it’s a mass movement toward legalization and it’s co-opting the medical establishment. But that’s my view,” he acknowledged, “and I lost.”

The committee stripped a requirement that patients under 21 take their case before a medical review board to qualify for a medical marijuana card. Lawmakers also agreed in principle to amend the bill to allow fee waivers for indigent patients.

Romer said he would consider allowing caregivers to reimburse veterans for the cost of seeking medical advice outside the VA system.

Sen. Linda Newell, D-Centennial, suggested the state could ask the Veterans Administration for a waiver to allow its doctors to begin recommending medical marijuana in Colorado.

The Senate Appropriations Committee considers the bill before it passes to the full Senate Friday, but Romer pointed out that’s a formality, since the bill pays for itself with fees.

“This is the beginning of a long process,” Romer said.

Corry agreed.

“This is the first step,” he said after the vote. “We’ll be trying to fight every step of the way.”

**Correction: This story originally misidentified Mark Simon as a spokesman for the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition. Simon has advocated and lobbied for the disability community for decades but is not affiliated with the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition.