Pot-friendly Colorado gets tough on teen abuse of potent concentrates

DENVER — The state known as the nation’s weed capital is bringing out the pruning shears.

The Colorado Legislature gave final approval this week to its most ambitious overhaul yet of the state’s 20-year-old medical marijuana industry, sending to Democratic Gov. Jared Polis a bill to gather research on the possible physical and mental impacts of high-potency concentrates and restrict their availability to teenagers.

Marijuana advocacy groups have urged the governor to veto House Bill 1317, but that appears unlikely, given that the bill zipped through the legislature with overwhelming support and the backing of Democratic leadership, starting with House Speaker Alec Garnett, one of its sponsors.

“We will be the first in the nation to research the impact of high-potency THC on the developing brain,” Mr. Garnett said in a Tuesday tweet after the final House vote shortly before the legislature adjourned. “Per usual, Colorado leads the way.”

The legislation represents a rare divide between the state’s Democratic establishment and the booming marijuana business, which registered $2.19 billion in sales last year, given the state’s early embrace of medical marijuana and its first-in-the-nation recreational pot market.

Two years ago, Mr. Polis signed bills to allow marijuana deliveries — before the COVID-19 pandemic — and establish a permit process for businesses to allow public consumption on their property.

Driving this year’s move to rein in the industry are concerns about rising adolescent and teen use of powerful marijuana concentrates as technological advances outpace regulations and loopholes in the law allow 18-year-olds to act as gateways for the drugs at high schools.

Colton Grace, Smart Approaches to Marijuana spokesperson, applauded Colorado’s decision to pump the brakes and said other states considering expanding their marijuana footprint should take heed.

“It speaks volumes. Honestly, this fact alone should lead lawmakers in states that are looking to legalize this year, such as Connecticut and Delaware, to rethink what they are doing,” said Mr. Grace. “We hope this is the beginning of a reset in the way in which people — especially lawmakers — look at marijuana commercialization and we are going to keep beating the drum on it.”

The latest Healthy Kids Colorado Survey found that youth marijuana consumption has remained almost the same since 2015, but that “dabbing,” which allows consumption of higher THC levels, jumped from 4.3% in 2015 to 20.4% in 2019.

“We are hearing more and more about how the market is changing away from traditional flower and more toward high-potency concentrates, which are made through the lab and becoming a bigger and bigger portion of the purchase products here in Colorado,” said Mr. Garnett at a May 18 hearing.

While recreational use is limited to those 21 and older, medical cards are available to all ages, but while patients 17 and younger must see two doctors to qualify, those 18 and older need only receive a certification from one physician.

The result was a scenario in which 18-year-olds still in high school were able to gain medical cards, then visit multiple dispensaries on the same day to stockpile concentrates, which typically come in oil or wax form, and smuggle them to their classmates at school.

The legislation slashes the allowable amount of marijuana for 18-to-20-year-olds from 40 grams to eight grams; limits the transactions to a per-sale instead of a per-day basis; requires two physicians from two different practices to authorize use, and mandates that patients follow up every six months.

In addition, the bill directs the Colorado School of Public Health to undergo a “systematic review of the scientific research” on the effects of high-potency marijuana and concentrates, and establishes a scientific review council to make recommendations based on the report to the General Assembly.

Foes of the legislation include marijuana advocacy groups such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws [NORML], the Marijuana Policy Project and the Colorado Cannabis Clinicians, which argue that the measure would hobble the industry and place unreasonable burdens on doctors.

“This is a crazy new bill written with ZERO input from practicing cannabis physicians,” said the clinicians’ group on its website. “It basically ends medical marijuana in Colorado.”

NORML state policies manager Carly Wolf argued that the bill would place an undue burden and financial strain on young adults by requiring them to see two doctors, even though many of them “may not have access to even one primary care physician.”

She also cast doubt on the prevalence of the problem, noting that young adults continue to make up less than 5% of all registered cannabis patients in Colorado.

“[T]here exists no persuasive data indicating that these products are either a) particularly popular among Coloradoans (most of whom gravitate toward more moderately strength products) or b) that these products pose such a unique and significant danger to public health that they warrant being banned from the market,” she said in her written testimony.

The evidence of young-adult marijuana concentrate abuse may be largely anecdotal, but it has also been compelling.

Democratic state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a physician and co-sponsor of the bill, said she treated a 16-year-old boy who ended up being admitted to residential psychological facilities after self-medicating for depression by dabbing.

She also cited the example of a 15-year-old girl who was hospitalized for uncontrollable vomiting brought on by daily concentrate use. After being treated and released from the hospital, she began dabbing again.

“These are not isolated stories,” Dr. Caraveo said. “I’ve heard stories from Boulder to Pueblo, from children, from patients, from students, from families who have seen their lives upended because of these very same medical and mental health issues.”

Republican state Sen. Kevin Priola said he was one of those parents in an emotional account on the Senate floor of his family’s struggle with his teenage son’s use of concentrates, which he described as far more potent than the pot in circulation when the state legalized medical marijuana in 2000.

He said that today’s marijuana is “just simply not your uncle’s Woodstock weed. It’s not,” but that many parents don’t know that.

“I know there is much more reform for us as a legislature to look at, to debate, to discuss in the coming years, but it’s important,” Mr. Priola said. “It’s important not just for the kids in our state, it’s also important for the parents and kids in the rest of the country who are following what we have done, and are as ignorant as many of us were in the prior years.”

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