Update: Big changes ahead for Colorado medical marijuana rules

DENVER — A marijuana fight is headed back to the Colorado statehouse.

A panel of state senators voted Tuesday to scrap most of the administration’s plans to change Colorado’s rules regulating how medical marijuana is grown and sold.

The vote came in a hearing called to renew the state’s 2010 pot regulations, which expire this year if lawmakers don’t act.

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s regulators wanted 15 changes, including a crackdown on caregivers, who are the people authorized to grow pot on behalf of people on the medical marijuana registry.

But senators from both parties voted 5-0 not to take that approach. Instead, lawmakers will debate every aspect of the medical marijuana code, opening the door for big changes to how the drug is grown and sold.

“Many of these are rather major policy changes and those should be debated individually,” said Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, who suggesting tabling most of the administration’s proposals until they could be debated individually.

The procedural move by the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday means that marijuana is poised to take up more of lawmakers’ time this year than it had appeared.

Colorado’s medical pot rules are almost identical to the recreational pot rules that were written later, but there are important distinctions that saw fiery debate Tuesday.

First, Hickenlooper’s administration wants to crack down on caregivers by requiring them to tell health authorities where they grow the pot. This is currently optional, and only about 5 percent of Colorado 3,000 or so caregivers do it.

“There’s a concern of a general lack of oversight of the caregivers,” said Brian Tobias of the Department of Regulated Agencies, which made the pot-rule suggestions to lawmakers.

But marijuana patient activists complain that Colorado is going too far cracking down on people who grow pot for others. Some hinted at lawsuits because Colorado’s constitution guarantees pot patients the right to designate someone else to grow their weed. Others suggested caregivers would refuse to register.

“These people aren’t going to do it, because they don’t trust law enforcement. They don’t trust government,” warned Phillip Barton, a medical marijuana patient and activist.

SPECIAL REPORT: CBD in Colorado. This Denver Post series examines cannabidiol, which has drawn hundreds of desperate families to Colorado in search of a marijuana miracle

Another source of discord was marijuana testing. Recreational marijuana must be tested for potency and contaminants before it is sold, but tests are optional in the medical market, a holdover from the days when Colorado’s didn’t have a functioning pot-testing industry.

The administration suggested making testing mandatory for medical pot.

“We test for recreational use of marijuana but not for medicine. There’s something that’s not quite right about that,” Tobias said.

Patients agreed, but they complained that private citizens should be able to have their pot tested if they wish. Testing companies testified that the regulations prohibit them from accepting home-grown pot, leaving patients reliant on pricier marijuana from dispensaries.

Testing companies agreed.

“It’s just ridiculous that … they can’t have a product tested,” said Martha Montemayor of Healthy Choices Unlimited, one of the pot-testing companies.

Amid the concerns about how to renew them medical pot rules, senators decided to scrap most of the recommendations and start over.

“I’d love to start from scratch and put the right things in there … rather than pull the wrong things out,” Hill said.

The medical pot changes now will have to be debated one-by-one by the Senate Finance Committee, a panel of three Republicans and two Democrats.

Debate on the individual marijuana changes could begin next week. A bill must be introduced by Jan. 23 to meet a legislative deadline.