Lab test results are displayed with a sample of the strain Stevie Wonder at Pure Marijuana Dispensary in Denver. Strains are tested for levels of various cannabinoids to help patients and budtenders know the strength and traits of the plant. (Joe Amon, Denver Post file)

Amid effort to limit pot potency, industry strikes back with well-funded campaign

A new coalition funded by the cannabis industry has formed in Colorado to fight a ballot measure that some say would crush the state’s billion-dollar marijuana industry.

The Colorado Health Research Council (CHRC) announced its formation today to oppose Amendment 139, a constitutional amendment that would limit the THC potency of dried marijuana and pot products sold recreationally at 16 percent. The average potency of Colorado pot products is already higher — 17.1 percent for cannabis flower and 62.1 percent for marijuana extracts, according to a state study.

The amendment would also mandate warnings printed on pot packaging that say marijuana’s health risks include “permanent loss of brain abilities” and “birth defects and reduced brain development.”

If passed by voters, the amendment “would have devastating unintended consequences to the citizens and economy of Colorado,” according to CHRC media materials, which add that 80 percent of the pot products on shelves today would be considered illegal under the measure.

But attorney Frank McNulty, Colorado’s former Speaker of the House and the official counsel to the citizens who first brought on the measure, said the amendment’s potential impact on the state’s marijuana industry “doesn’t matter.”

“The marijuana moguls have said time and time again that the sky is falling every time that someone proposes a change to keep marijuana and marijuana products out of the hands of kids,” McNulty told The Cannabist, “and all we’ve seen is their profits skyrocket. They keep making more money off this, and in that time we’ve seen the black market increase in Colorado, a spike in hospital visits, a spike in pregnant women who show up with THC in their systems and their children are born with THC in their systems.

“All of these things are happening, and the marijuana industry is only concerned about the profits they’re able to make.”

Prices for cannabis concentrates are on display at The Colfax Pot Shop, a recreational marijuana shop located in Denver. (Vince Chandler, The Denver Post)
Prices for cannabis concentrates are on display at The Colfax Pot Shop, a recreational marijuana shop located in Denver. (Vince Chandler, The Denver Post)

The CHRC is “a coalition of cannabis patients, caregivers, scientists, cannabis industry leaders, the business community and ordinary citizens,” according to the release, issued by a staffer at one the U.S.’s largest marijuana businesses, Colorado-based LivWell Enlightened Health.

When LivWell CEO John Lord was asked about the proposed THC-limiting amendment last week on The Cannabist Show, he hinted at the coalition’s formation and said the issue isn’t one business’ battle — “this is an industry fight.”

“LivWell is extremely concerned, of course, and so too should the rest of the industry,” Lord said on The Cannabist Show. “We’ve been gathering, at the moment, a lot of information along with our industry peers, and we will revisit the subject shortly because this is not a LivWell fight — this is an industry fight. And the messaging should come from the industry.”

The CHRC has raised more than $300,000 for its fight against Amendment 139 — nearly $215,000 listed in a June 27 contributions report and another $96,500 listed in a June 28 report of major contributors.

The Genetic Locker, which operates Colorado marijuana shops under the name Terrapin Care Station, contributed $75,000 to the CHRC, according to campaign finance filings. A representative with Terrapin Care Station directed questions about the group’s contribution to the CHRC.

According to the campaign finance filings: Six businesses donated $25,000 or more to the CHRC, including OpenVape parent company Allied Concessions Group and Futurevision, which does business as Medicine Man marijuana shops. Three companies donated $10,000 or more, including Shawn Phillips, who owns Strainwise-branded stores throughout Colorado. And 10 groups donated $5,000 or more, including Incredibles parent company Medically Correct.

While most of the CHRC’s funding comes from members of the state’s cannabis industry, the organization’s media materials and website emphasize the amendment’s potential impact on medical marijuana patients. The amendment is written to impact only recreational cannabis, but the CHRC claims it could also apply to the state’s medical sales — including non-resident refugees and those with conditions such as PTSD that aren’t on the state’s list of MMJ-qualifying conditions who still buy at retail pot shops.

If the amendment passes, 15-year-old Jack Splitt won’t have access to the THC oil that keeps him alive, says his mom Stacey Linn.

“My son needs cannabis with high THC concentrations just to survive,” Linn said in the CHRC release. “This law would make the concentration of THC my doctor recommended to keep my child alive illegal to purchase in a store.”

Amendment 139 was brought on by the Healthy Colorado Coalition, which includes proponents Ali Pruitt and former Lakewood High School principal Ron Castagna, “folks who have nothing to gain here except that they want Colorado to be safer,” said McNulty, who said he is “counseling them on the legal aspects of the initiative and the initiative process.” Child advocacy group Smart Colorado isn’t involved in the Healthy Colorado Coalition, but they are supportive of the amendment, McNulty said.

Marijuana industry proponents complained to the Colorado Supreme Court in May that the initiative had multiple subjects — “a stalling technique by the marijuana moguls,” said McNulty — but the state’s highest court allowed the initiative to move forward in June. Now McNulty’s camp has until Aug. 8 to gather the 98,492 signatures needed to put the question on the state ballot in November, and he’s confident they’ll secure them.

Because the Healthy Colorado Coalition just registered its campaign in the last week, no campaign finance information is yet publicly available. But McNulty said the coalition “is funded by folks who are interested in protecting kids in our state, ensuring that we have potency controlled and that we have child-resistant packaging.”

McNulty said his side won’t likely have the same kind of financial support the marijuana industry has: “With as much money as the marijuana moguls are making in this state right now, we know they’re going to be able to raise and spend more than we’re going to be able to raise and spend.” But he’s confident the initiative will find its way to November’s ballot — and that voters will have the opportunity to decide.

“Coloradans will have the choice of having an unbridled marijuana industry or a marijuana industry we have reasonable controls on,” McNulty said.

The description on the CHRC’s committee registration form hints that the funds they’re raising can also be used to fight other initiatives taking aim at the industry.

“Oppose 2015-2016 initiative #139 regarding regulation of the sale of marijuana and marijuana products as well as any other ballot issues intended to limit access to marijuana or marijuana products.”