Front of the medical middle

New report gives Colorado C+ on access to medical cannabis

Handwriting Grade C Plus on Notebook

Amid the ongoing frenzy since Colorado legalized recreational cannabis in 2012, it’s easy to forget that medical cannabis has been legal in this state for 22 years. Amendment 20 passed in November of 2000 with a 54% approval rate. And ever since, patients who use cannabis to treat their sleeplessness, chronic pain, anxiety, or other ailments can do so without risking their freedom and future. 

In the last decade, though, the focus of the state’s marijuana energy has shifted. Since recreational use was legalized, Colorado’s medical marijuana industry has fallen by the wayside. And according to Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the nation’s largest advocacy group for medical cannabis patients, some of Colorado’s recent policies are now actively suppressing access to it. 

That’s why, in ASA’s recent “State of the State” report, Colorado received a C+ on its medical cannabis access report card. According to Abbey Roudebush, the director of government affairs at ASA, the state that’s become synonymous with “recreational cannabis” is losing touch with its roots—which started with medical cannabis and the patients who rely on it for their day-to-day wellness. 

“Colorado’s [grade], unlike a lot of other states that we see, really suffered in the patient rights and civil protection category,” Roudebush says. 

In that category, Colorado only received a 50% score. The reasons being threefold, she explains: First, because there are no DUI protections for medical cannabis patients. If a patient is pulled over and given a drug test, chances are they won’t pass because they regularly use cannabis and could be charged with a DUI. Second, there’s a lack of employment protection for medical cannabis patients in Colorado; they can still be fired from their jobs for using a state-legal plant medicine to treat their health problems. And third, Roudebush points to the lack of parental rights protections for medical cannabis patients. 

“So that’s making sure that [if] a parent has a medical cannabis [license], their status as a medical cannabis patient can’t be used against them in a custody hearing,” Roudebush says. “That’s a big thing, and Colorado doesn’t protect that.”

Colorado also lost points in the Dispensary Operations category for poor standard operating procedures and for not disclosing Certificate of Analysis product tests. 

But perhaps the single biggest factor in Colorado’s C+ grade was a bill sponsored by two democrats that passed in 2021 with widespread bipartisan support: HB 1317—or the “Regulating Marijuana Concentrates” bill (See Weed Between the Lines, “Concentrated regulation,” July 1, 2021). 

Sponsored by Representatives Alec Garnett (D) from Denver, and Yadira Caraveo (D) from Thornton, this bill was passed in an effort to prevent kids from getting their hands on cannabis concentrates. It requires that medical patients receive two separate physicians recommendations in order to get a medical cannabis license: One to diagnose their “debilitating or disabling medical condition,” and a second to actually have the cannabis recommendation written. That recommendation must now also include authorized potency and recommended dosage for the patient.

Not only does that make it doubly expensive and time consuming to get a medical license, but it puts doctors into a sticky position. Because cannabis is still a Schedule I substance, doctors aren’t allowed to specifically prescribe it; they can only generally “recommend” it to their patients. However, forcing doctors to include such specific information as dosage and potency recommendations starts to look a lot like prescription. 

On top of all that, HB 1317 also limits the amount of cannabis concentrates medical patients (and especially medical patients under 21) can legally purchase in a day. 

ASA’s page on Colorado states, “ASA is disturbed by the direction Colorado policymakers have chosen to take in amending cannabis laws. ASA recommends an emergency session be called to issue an immediate repeal of HB 1317 before it devastates the state’s patient population and creates a crisis of access.”

Roudebush says that if it hadn’t been for that bill passing last year, Colorado likely would have gotten a B. However, as things stand, only Illinois and Maine achieved that (with a B- and a B respectively) with every other state scroing lower.  

She also notes that part of the reason Colorado scored lower than in previous years has to do with a new grading system that ASA implemented this year. But that was just one contributing factor, and not the most significant by any means, she says.

“The new grading scale did overall make the scores lower,” Roudebush says. “But I can say that Colorado’s grade suffered more than other states because of the rollbacks that have happened this year.”

Even with those rollbacks, Colorado isn’t at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to accessing medicinal cannabis. The average grade among the 50 US states was a D—putting Colorado squarely at the front of the middle, concerning access to medical cannabis.

That’s not bad, according to Roudebush (as long as the trend doesn’t continue in coming years). It just means there’s room for improvement. The hard part will be walking back the policy changes that have already been made—because once regulation is tightened down, policymakers rarely loosen it up.