Lacking Patient Protection, Colorado Earns "B" Average in Medical Marijuana

By Clara Geoghegan for Westword

Colorado's medical marijuana system still has room to improve, according to a report from a national cannabis advocacy group.

Americans for Safe Access annually grades every state's medical marijuana program on an "A" to "F" scale. Although Colorado continues to score low on patient rights and protections, the state still earned a "B-" thanks to high marks for patient access and functionality.

The ASA report cards, which began in 2015, assign scores to state policies on patient rights and civil protections, access to medicine, ease of navigation for application and renewal processes, medical marijuana functionality and consumer safety requirements, while a new section graded both medical marijuana accessibility and telemedicine options during the COVID-19 pandemic. And the ASA is a tough grader.

Oregon was the only state to scrape by with an “A,” with Illinois and Maine close behind in the "B+" group. Colorado, in the middle of the pack, lost points for a lack of civil and patient protections. Colorado's failure to protect patients boils down to legislative loopholes, according to Martha Montemayor, director of Cannabis Clinicians Colorado, a non-profit group of doctors and medical professionals that advocate for medical marijuana.

“One of the big problems we have here in Colorado is that we changed the constitution to allow medical marijuana and later recreational marijuana, but we didn’t make corresponding changes to the Colorado Controlled Substances Act.”

According to Montemayor, the state’s Controlled Substances Act serves as a loophole for some government agencies who access Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Registry, which would violate Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act protections (because marijuana is still federally illegal, HIPAA's protection of medical marijuana patients is still in a legal gray area). For some of Montemayor’s patients, this loophole has impacted child custody agreements and firearm license applications, she says.

Montemayor hopes to see this loophole closed during future legislative sessions in order to protect medical marijuana patients in the future.

Colorado did well in the ASA's new pandemic response category, thanks to public health orders designating dispensaries as essential businesses in March during statewide stay-home executive periods, as well as executive orders from Governor Jared Polis allowing takeout and online ordering at dispensaries and medical marijuana appointments to be conducted via tele-medicine.

The report applauded laws signed by Polis in 2019, including medical and recreation delivery options and social pot consumption expansions. Colorado’s score was boosted one point for Polis’ signing of law that adds autism spectrum disorder and opioid-qualifying ailments as qualifying conditions, as well. The state is also at the top in medical marijuana dispensaries access. By allowing dispensaries to serve medical patients and recreational users at the same location, Colorado patients have one of the best patient to dispensary ratios in the country according to the ASA.

"According to this report, Colorado has been ranked at a B or B- minus over the last few years, and that is not acceptable for the state that pioneered medical marijuana," Polis says in a statement. "We look forward to raising our grade as the state continues to make great strides to help patients and continue to increase patient access."

Colorado’s ASA grade fell from the usual “B” to a “B-” this year mainly because of limited medical marijuana delivery options during the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization called on Colorado to make temporary pandemic policy changes to medical marijuana access permanent, but that’s not enough in Montemayor's eyes.

She says that her patients, especially those without internet access and those in rural parts of the state, still face barriers to access medical marijuana products, which are generally cheaper and more potent than recreational products, amid the pandemic. For patients who live in counties with only recreational dispensaries, this can mean driving long distances to access medicine in nearby communities, some of which had implications in the spread of COVID-19 early in the pandemic.

“Gunnison, which is pretty remote, is an all-recreational county. My patients there who need medical marijuana have to travel over an hour in any direction to find a medical dispensary," she explains. "What happened with COVID-19 was the ski areas got hit first, and Crested Butte was one of those hot-spots, and now my patients have to travel to another community.”

Medical marijuana patients who did not have internet access during early COVID-19 shutdowns were unable to apply for patient card renewals online, Montemayor adds, and faced significant delays in procuring their medical marijuana after the state Medical Marijuana Registry employees shifted to working from home.

“The rule right now is that new patients may purchase medical marijuana with paperwork while they wait for their medical marijuana card to be processed, but renewals may not,” Montemayor says.

Montemayor says the CCC is collecting signatures on a new bill to gain better access to medical marijuana. The proposed changes include making telemedicine appointments for medical marijuana cards permanent, allowing all dispensaries to distribute medical marijuana, and applying new patient rules to medical marijuana card renewals in case of another pandemic shutdown.