The Colorado Senate Chambers at the Denver Capitol. (RJ Sangosti, Denver Post file)

Stripped-down Colorado MMJ review bill gets initial OK in Senate

DENVER — Colorado’s attempts to make medical marijuana regulations more like recreational pot rules are running into trouble at the state Legislature.

Colorado is the only state that regulates the sale of pot for both medical and recreational purposes. A bill to renew the state’s medical pot regulations won preliminary approval in the Senate on Wednesday.

But that was only after ruling Republicans stripped many of bill’s controversial elements, including a crackdown on medical pot growers and new rules requiring edible pot to be refrigerated.

The measure now renews Colorado medical marijuana regulations that were passed in 2010 and became the inspiration for the state’s later recreational pot regulations.

But there are differences in Colorado’s medical and recreational pot rules, and state health officials and other regulators were hoping lawmakers would eliminate some of them. Among the differences:

• Recreational pot must be tested for potency and contaminants. For medical pot, such testing is optional.

• Edible marijuana must be tested for potency and limited to 10 milligrams of marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, THC. But edible pot sold to medical patients has no testing requirement and higher “serving size” limits.

• Pot shops must refrigerate perishable edible marijuana for recreational customers. Medical edibles have no refrigeration requirements.

Republicans said Wednesday that medical pot testing is important but noted Colorado’s few licensed pot-testing labs already are backlogged. Adding medical pot testing requirements could overwhelm the labs, they said.

“It’s a false sense of security,” said Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs.

Democrats tried to restore the testing requirements but lacked the votes. Democrats argued unsuccessfully that because medical pot patients are sick, they have a greater need for testing.

“To me, it’s common sense,” said Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood.

Democrats also failed to extend refrigeration requirements to medical products.

“Food poisoning and medical marijuana is not something we solve in the Department of Revenue,” which oversees the marijuana industry, Hill said.

The bill entirely avoids a bigger marijuana fight looming next week for the Senate — what to do about marijuana caregivers.

Caregivers are people designated to grow marijuana on behalf of others. Colorado health authorities say a few caregivers are wrongly operating as commercial growers without oversight.

That bill has its first hearing Feb. 26. Already some marijuana activists are complaining that Colorado wants to violate constitutional protections for the caregivers, which were established in the state’s 2000 medical marijuana amendment.

“They are in backroom meetings negotiating away patient and caregiver rights,” activist Timothy Tipton said Wednesday in an email sent to patients.

Colorado anticipated that the number of people registered to use medical marijuana would decline after 2012, when the state legalized recreational pot for everyone over 21.

That didn’t happen. Instead, the number on the registry increased slightly, standing at about 115,467 at the end of last year.

Because recreational pot is taxed at a much higher rate than recreational pot — 27.9 percent versus 2.9 percent, not including local taxes — regulators believe taxes are in some cases keeping people away from recreational pot. The persistence of Colorado’s medical registry has been widely blamed for Colorado falling short of projected marijuana revenues in 2014, the first year recreational stores were open and competing with the medical market.

Colorado approved an excise tax and special sales tax for recreational pot totaling 25 percent. Those taxes were projected to raise $70 million; instead they raised $44 million in 2014.

Online: Senate Bill 115