Pot regulation still a burning issue

Smoke has begun to clear after last session's attempt

By Anthony Bowe

A senator, doctor, entrepreneur and college professor provided insight and speculation Tuesday to how Colorado’s medical marijuana laws may be altered when the Legislature takes up the issue again next year.

The City Club of Denver hosted the four panelists at the Brown Palace Hotel on Nov. 9 during a lunchtime forum on medical marijuana’s past, present and future in Colorado and the nation. The panelists were state Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, physician Paul Bregman, medical marijuana center owner Josh Stanley and University of Colorado theater professor LeeAnn Weller, who suffers from multiple sclerosis.

Each panelist talked about the burgeoning industry from their professional and personal perspective before engaging in conversation with one another about what lies ahead.

Their message was clear: state regulation legitimized the industry through two bills in the last legislative session but more work must be done.

Last session the Legislature started tackling the medical marijuana issue with House Bill 1284, which dealt with dispensary rules and licensing regulations, and Senate Bill 109, which regulates the doctor-patient relationship and assures doctors receive no reward from dispensary owners for referring customers.

Spence said those laws will likely be enhanced after a year of trial and error with the new rules.

“It’s not an easy task to regulate medical marijuana, but I have every confidence when we finish and we go back to fix the law to address some issues we didn’t know about, I think Colorado is going to be able to have a good example of the way to regulate medical marijuana,” the senator said.

Stanley, who owns the garden store Let Grow Hydroponics in Denver and Budding Health, a group of marijuana medical centers in Denver, Fort Collins and the Tech Center, said this is going to be an important legislative session for dispensary owners and patients alike. Stanley also serves as vice chair of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, and also helped lead Coloradans for Medical Marijuana Regulation, a political organization that lobbied on behalf of dispensary owners when HB 1284 and SB 109 were being formed.

“We’re very hopeful in the future in this legislative session coming in that we’re going to work with our legislators… to put something in for Colorado that’s a measure of research and development,” Stanley said. “That allows us to take the stigma out that it’s not just all about hippies under trees smoking joints getting high with stubbed toes. That’s not why we’re here.”

Bregman, who once served as the chief of mammography at Denver Health and is now a member of the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine, agreed that research and development could bring major advancements in the field.

“One of the things that keeps us from doing proper research is its Schedule 1 drug,” said Bregman, who started issuing medical marijuana recommendations in 2007. Because marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug “you have to jump through an incredible amount of hoops to do research on it. That’s why most research is done abroad.”

Being designated as a Schedule 1 drug means marijuana is lumped into the same category as heroin as a drug that, by definition, has no medical purpose, lacks safe applications for use and is highly addictive. Bregman suggests Colorado follow in Oregon’s footsteps this year and reclassify marijuana as a Schedule 2 drug.

“If we could get good research going in this country that would be very significant,” he said.

Stanley said he has proof of how research could maximize marijuana’s potential as a medicine. He said lab workers at his medical center have found a way to strip most of the psychedelic chemical, referred as THC, from marijuana while maintaining the positive side effects of the drug like its pain killing ability.

“We’re the only people in Colorado, I believe, that have these capabilities but we’re certainly willing to share and pass these things on,” Stanley said.

Research could also help the state develop quality control — assuring the safety of every bag of marijuana that is sold, panelists said. For instance, dosage instructions to patients isn’t yet an exact science, with only a trickle of information of how different strains of marijuana treat specific symptoms.

Quality control rules currently being discussed by the Department of Revenue would assure that every singe marijuana transaction is photographed, Spence said.

Spence discussed how she grew from originally opposing Amendment 20 on the 2000 ballot, which legalized medicinal marijuana in Colorado, to becoming the prime co-sponsor on the state’s first two bills regulating the industry, HB 1284 and SB 109. She said she’s still waiting for indication from stakeholders on how current laws should be changed.

“Senators and representatives don’t just sit around and dream up this stuff. We look to the medical community, we look to the medical marijuana centers (and) the patients to come to us and suggest how we can assist the patient, how we can assist the process of moving forward,” she said. “So I’m waiting for some instruction from the Colorado Medical Society, with whom I worked last year when we were putting forward legislation.”

Spence expects the Department of Revenue, which handles licensing for marijuana care centers, to also request specific changes, she said. Stanley said his trade group has also formed a bulleted list of legislative fixes they would like to see. Spence could not specify which issues will specifically be addressed in the next legislative session.

Weller received a standing ovation following her remarks at the podium. She said it was the first time she’d talked in front of a crowd about her battle with MS and medical marijuana usage.

Weller was diagnosed with MS in 2002 before she turned 40. She moved to Colorado three years ago from Dallas and became one of the 111,000 to receive a marijuana registry card.

She was initially skeptical about marijuana but considered it after a plethora of drugs she was prescribed caused more problems than they fixed. She depended on the drugs to relieve various pains caused by steroids she took for her MS symptoms.

“Steroids really beat me up,” Weller said. “I could not sleep. I could not focus. I was barely even human. People who saw me just could not believe the change in my personality.”

Weller was prescribed a drug similar to Ambien, a narcotic, to help her sleep. When that drug gave her stomach pains, she was prescribed another drug to treat that pain. When that drug gave her severe heartburn, she received another drug to treat heartburn. She compared her daily dosage to a “pharmaceutical blizzard.”

In 2009 Weller received her registry card and was surprised at how well she was treated at a wellness center in Denver.

“I did not know what I was getting myself into. I assumed I would be down in LoDo prohibition style, knocking on doors,” she said. “Instead I walked into a boutique environment. I walked in, I sat down and the first thing they did was educate me.”

Weller was thrilled to find out that her wellness center also offered massage, chiropractor work, acupuncture, among several other medical treatments for low to zero cost, she said.

“They were there to treat the whole patient. They were not there to just sell me a bag of drugs,” she said.

Weller was matched with a marijuana strain that she said helps her sleep and kills pain caused by the steroids.

“I don’t want this drug to ever go back to a back alley because I don’t know how I would go about getting it,” Weller said. “This is the way that I know that I’m safe, and it’s reliable.”

Weller hopes that the Legislature makes strides in maintaining high safety standards at medical marijuana centers. She said the presence of security guards should be standard, as well as credit card machines so patients don’t have to carry cash.

Spence said Colorado, California and Washington likely would have ballot measures in 2012 asking voters to legalize marijuana. She said state regulations have yet to satisfy all stakeholders, let alone an entire legalization effort.

“I hoped that [Proposition 19] passed (in California this year) because I’d like to see someone else besides Colorado be the guinea pig in how to fix this stuff,” she said. “Regulations are just a baby step to how we would manage full legalization.”

Spence said she’s against local bans on dispensaries because it “denies patients their medicine.” She expects bans passed in multiple cities and counties to be challenged in court.