CO: Cannabis Bills Get Mixed Reception From Legislature

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Colorado residents still can’t legally smoke weed in public after the state Legislature adjourned this month, but they will soon have some other options for consumption besides their own homes.

While legislation to allow for social cannabis clubs (Senate Bill 211) failed, House Bill 1258, “Marijuana Accessory Consumption Establishments,” has been sent to Gov. John Hickenlooper for his signature.

“It’s been a long journey,” Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, the bill’s primary sponsor, said of his efforts to address public consumption, a problem he’s been trying to resolve for over five years. Now finishing his third term, Singer has provided leadership on both medical and recreational cannabis regulation since he was appointed in early 2012 to fill a vacancy.

“The Legislature has set up an almost impossible situation in Colorado, especially for out-of-state folks,” Singer says. The crux of the problem is that marijuana is legal, he explains, but there are no legal places to consume it outside of one’s private home. Tourists, apartment renters, public housing tenants, homeless folks, and parents with young children at home are all affected by the lack of legal consumption options.

HB1258 allows marijuana shops to set up separate “tasting rooms” where marijuana can be bought and nonsmoking consumption can take place. “It’s modeled after the tasting rooms found in wineries and breweries, which has worked well for the alcohol industry,” Singer says. “It’s a great way to keep it off the streets.”

Over 30 marijuana and hemp bills were introduced in the Legislature this session, and some made it past both the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate, like a bill that allows for recycling of plants into fibrous products. Others were shot down, like a bill to mark buds in a way that tracks their origins.

Of the marijuana bills that did make it through the Legislature, many might best be described as “housekeeping,” making needed administrative changes that don’t significantly affect the state’s marijuana program. For instance, in the 2017 session the Legislature inadvertently excluded some special districts from receiving marijuana tax money. Legislators squabbled and were unable to fix this during an ill-fated special session but corrected the problem moving forward with Senate Bill 88 this session, which was signed into law.

Here’s a look at some of the other key bills and their fate:

• House Bill 1092, “Marijuana Delivery Pilot Project” — Aimed largely at disabled medical marijuana patients, this bill was the Legislature’s second attempt to allow limited deliveries of marijuana. The bill made it all the way through the House, only to be defeated in the Senate Judiciary Committee, when Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, joined Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, and Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, to kill it before consideration by the full Senate. They argued it created too many headaches for law enforcement.

• Senate Bill 211, “Marijuana Consumption Club License” — This aforementioned bill was similar to Singer’s consumption measure that did pass, but broader. It would have provided social spaces for cannabis users to congregate, consume cannabis, and be involved in other activities, like games and art classes. Consumption clubs, like Studio A64 in downtown Colorado Springs, already exist but currently occupy a gray area of the law, at best. The bill would have allowed such private social clubs, which are similar to those that serve alcohol, like the VFW Hall and Elks Club.

Jason Warf, the executive director of the Southern Colorado Cannabis Council, has been working on cannabis club legislation for four years. SB211 “failed miserably,” he said, describing the process as “similar to whack-a-mole,” where as soon as objections were addressed, new ones popped up. Warf’s version of the bill would have given a legal pathway to existing cannabis clubs now operating in the gray and black markets, and allowed the clubs to sell cannabis to consume on the premises.

Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, has already committed to introduce the bill again next session. “She’s a champion for cannabis,” says Warf.

• House Bill 1263, “Medical Marijuana Use for Autism and Acute Pain” — Last year the Legislature took a new approach when they passed a state law that added PTSD to the conditions that permit residents to qualify for medical marijuana cards. This year they did the same with autism spectrum disorder. Although the original bill also included acute pain, that was struck during the legislative process. Rep. Singer, who sponsored the PTSD bill in 2017, observes that the autism bill “practically sailed through” with a comfortable majority. Warf, who also worked on the bill, credits a dedicated grassroots group of MAMMAs, or Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism, who lobbied doggedly for its passage. HB1263 has been sent to the governor for his signature.

• House Bill 1286, “School Nurse Give Medical Marijuana at School” — In another victory for parents of children using medical marijuana, this bill expands the options for receiving it at school. Parents or caretakers can bring the child’s marijuana (non-smokable forms) to the school, and “a school nurse or the school nurse’s designee, who may or may not be an employee of the school, or school personnel designated by a parent” are authorized to dispense it, similar to how they do with other medications. HB1286 has also been sent to Gov. Hickenlooper.

• House Bill 1187, “Food and Drug Administration Cannabidiol Drug Use” — As difficult as it is to muster support for important cannabis laws, just get a pharmaceutical company involved and legislators of both parties jump on board. That is what happened with this bill that sped through both chambers with near-unanimous support and is now awaiting the governor’s signature. Greenwich Biosciences, the U.S. subsidiary of London-based GW Pharmaceuticals, got busy lobbying in anticipation of approval by the FDA to market its new CBD medication Epidiolex. The drug will only be available by prescription, yet Colorado pharmacies were prohibited from dispensing cannabis products. That was fixed very quickly in the Legislature, though not before the state’s hemp industry was able to insert some protections for their non-pharmaceutical CBD products.

While the state Legislature certainly had a productive session when it comes to cannabis legislation, most of the bills they passed haven’t become law just yet — the governor must sign them, veto them, or allow them to become law without his signature. That can lead to a little nervousness among the backers of key bills. Singer, for instance, says that while he has no reason to think Hickenlooper won’t sign his public consumption bill, he’s taking it “one step at a time.”