Lack of Patient Protection Gets Colorado a "B" Grade in Medical Marijuana

By Thomas Mitchell for Westword

Despite new laws allowing easier access to medical marijuana, Colorado couldn't improve its B grade in an annual report card from a national cannabis advocacy organization.

Each year since 2015, Americans for Safe Access has issued a lengthy report card for every U.S. state and territory's medical marijuana programs, or lack thereof. While the seventeen states that haven't legalized medical marijuana or severely limit its access got automatic Fs in this year's edition; As were hard to attain, with just Illinois and Oregon making the grade.

Colorado found itself in the middle with the Cs and Bs, trailing states such as Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts and Oklahoma, among others. The state's 82.8/100 score was just two points higher than 2018's report card, despite passing new laws adding conditions eligible for medical marijuana (autism and any condition for which opioids are prescribed), and permitting dentists, psychiatrists, registered nurse practitioners and other healthcare professionals to recommend medical marijuana. Another law passed allowing parents of child patients to purchase medication more easily on their child's behalf, as well.

States are graded in four categories — functionality, patient rights and civil protection, access to medicine, and ease of navigation — and Colorado neared the top of the class in three out of four. However, poor scores in patient rights and civil protection pulled down what would have otherwise been a near-A grade.

Michelle Walker, a founding board member of Colorado's new ASA chapter, believes the state's medical marijuana program needs to improve patients' protection in housing, employment, firearms possession and parental rights. As states such as Illinois and Oklahoma pass medical marijuana laws with more patient-friendly regulations in some of those areas, Colorado is trending more toward a recreational-only state, she says.

"I think what's been difficult is that we are moving at a slow pace, and other states are leaving us in the dust," she explains. "We've had our program for nineteen years now, and we're making these tiny incremental steps. Whereas we have new states, like Illinois, which score way better than we did in employment and housing, because they're moving at a way faster pace. These are fundamental issues that should've been addressed nineteen years ago." That's when voters approved legalizing medical marijuana.

A Colorado Supreme Court decision from 2015 gives companies the right to fire medical marijuana patients for failing a drug test at any time, but Illinois patients are protected by a state law that allows them to medicate outside of work hours. Illinois also scored higher in housing protections for patients, according to the ASA.

"There aren't a lot of laws protecting patients in our state. Someone can be fired for being a medical marijuana patient, and it would be completely legal," Walker says. "We tell families moving here from another state for medical marijuana access to not mention cannabis and why they moved here when they're trying to lease a home, because it can really hurt their chances."

Walker says that her ASA chapter and other medical marijuana advocacy groups hope to address these issues with the Colorado Legislature in 2020, and she's confident they'll make progress, given the bills that passed in 2019. Even the ASA gave Polis a shout-out in its report card for the new laws expanding medical marijuana access and safety.

"In 2019, under the leadership of Governor Polis, the medical program saw many needed improvements related to qualifying conditions, testing, and product formulations," the report reads.

Still, who ever would have thought that Colorado would be outranked by Oklahoma in anything involving marijuana?