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Cannabis plants grow under automated lighting inside RiNo Supply's cultivation facility near Lafayette on Dec. 13, 2018. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The 2019 legislative session may one day be remembered as a turning point for the marijuana industry in Colorado — the moment it came to be viewed not as a challenge to be controlled, but as an opportunity to be embraced.

Cannabis advocates and critics alike largely attribute the shift to the man in the governor’s office, Democrat Jared Polis, who promised on the campaign trail to be an “unwavering champion” for the industry.

MORE: Meet America’s first pot governor, Colorado’s Jared Polis

Polis wasted no time making good on that pledge, swiftly signing into law one measure that his predecessor vetoed. And now, with just a week left in the 120-day legislative session, lawmakers are advancing bills to allow more ailments qualify for medical marijuana treatment, permit home delivery of pot and let marijauna be smoked socially in “hospitality establishments” that would be similar to bars but without the booze.

The efforts are part of the broader effort to expand the availability of marijuana and where it can be consumed, relax business regulations and allow the industry to tap into investment capital that was previously inaccessible.

Gov. Jarod Polis addresses the crowd at his inauguration ceremony Jan. 8, 2019 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Observers say Polis’ approach to cannabis has been a major departure from that of former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who opposed legalizing the drug in Amendment 64 and only reluctantly implemented the will of voters.

“The previous administration did not believe that cannabis — either recreational, medical or hemp — was a priority for economic development and growth,” said Christian Sederberg, a prominent marijuana industry attorney in Denver. “This new administration absolutely sees it that way.”

Cannabis bills

See where the most prominent cannabis laws stand as the legislative session winds down. Click here.

That’s caused a noticeable policy shift at the Capitol, Sederberg added. “If you don’t see (cannabis) as an opportunity for economic development and growth, the attitude taken legislatively, and from a regulatory perspective, towards business is one that has a tendency to constrain as opposed to allowing it to flourish.”

But not everyone’s been pleased by Polis’ approach. He’s signed into law measures that have been bitterly opposed by anti-marijuana groups, and generated serious concern from doctors and public health experts. And in a political climate that has made it difficult to research the drug’s health impacts, an increasingly pot-friendly state Capitol has led to some uncomfortable questions about the industry’s growing political influence.

MORE: Cannabis lobby gains new clout in Colorado as its spending tripled in the past five years

Diane Carlson, the co-founder of Smart Colorado, a nonprofit that works to protect kids from marijuana commercialization, said this year “it doesn’t seem like as many people are listening to the voices (of concerned parents), or the voices of medical professionals.”

“They’re feeling like, is anyone listening?” Carlson added.

Polis isn’t the only variable that has changed. As more states legalize the drug, Colorado’s status as a national leader — and all the money that comes with it — is in jeopardy. That’s heaped a different sort of pressure on state leaders: Instead of governing in fear of a federal crackdown, now Colorado is faced with the very real prospect of losing a growing economic engine to the competition.

Gov. John Hickenlooper vetoed three marijuana-related bills in his final year in office. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

From reluctant regulator to proactive champion

In the early years of legalization, the focus was largely on how to regulate and restrict an industry that isn’t even supposed to exist under federal law. Regulations were put in place limiting how businesses could operate, how the drugs could be sold, and to keep them out of the hands of the black market and children. More recently, a federal crackdown loomed under then-U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who was openly hostile toward legalization.

In his final year, Hickenlooper vetoed three bills that had all passed with bipartisan support. One eased restrictions on investing in cannabis businesses; another allowed dispensary “tasting rooms” where marijuana can be consumed socially, outside of one’s home. The third added autism to the list of debilitating conditions eligible for medical marijuana use.

Polis has already signed an autism measure and he has pledged to sign revised versions of the other two once they pass both chambers. And the differences between the two governors don’t end there. Where Hickenlooper was reluctant, Polis has been proactive, going out of his way to work on the industry’s priorities. For one thing, the two pending measures Hickenlooper vetoed now go further than the versions offered a year ago.

Another example is House Bill 1090, this year’s version of a measure Hickenlooper vetoed that would allow publicly traded companies to own a marijuana license. The latest attempt would also allow cannabis companies access to private equity, and supporters believe it will bring an influx of outside cash into the state’s already-billion-dollar industry.

“That was an incredibly complicated law,” said Sederberg, the marijuana industry attorney. “It required work from all sides of the issue, and particularly the administration. They stepped up and did a lot of work to get that done.”

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The bill is still pending before the state Senate, but with bipartisan sponsorship, it’s widely expected to reach the governor’s desk.

The legislature this session is also required to conduct a “sunset review” of the state’s recreational and medical marijuana regulations, and lawmakers are looking to use the process to eliminate and streamline some provisions the industry has found onerous, like consolidating some regulations that apply to both recreational and medical marijuana, and speeding up a slow licensing process with overlapping state and local requirements. Colorado lawmakers also are considering allowing marijuana delivery services, which are already legal in California.

Sam Kamin, a professor of marijuana law and policy at the University of Denver, said part of what has driven the pro-industry reforms this session is the competition from other states.

“I think that what’s happened is we were first and we were progressive in that way, and then slowly over time we’ve gotten leapfrogged,” Kamin said. “The regulations here make Colorado unattractive. Colorado’s playing catch-up in a lot of ways at this point.”

Despite this year’s victories, some within the industry insist that cannabis is still a long way from being “normalized” and treated like any other business.

“We’re trying to create an equal playing field in what is currently a very unequal playing field,” said Kristi Kelly, the executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, which represents marijuana businesses. “There are still employees that are not able to get a loan on a house” because of how lenders view marijuana-related income.

Cannabis plants grow inside a cultivation facility near Lafayette on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We need to ask ourselves, ‘Are we ready for that?’ ”

Carlson, the youth health advocate whose group seeks to prevent marijuana from becoming socially acceptable among kids, said she worries that health concerns are being lost as economic development becomes a bigger focus.

“We’re pretty commercialized in Colorado. Some of these bills will take us so much further,” Carlson said. “I think the question we need to ask ourselves is: Are we ready for that? Do we know the implications? Do we know the public health impacts that will have?”

When Polis signed into law the bill allowing medical marijuana use by people with autism, he did so over the objections of the state’s largest group of doctors.

“While there’s not good evidence for exactly how it should be used in the treatment of autism,  there’s clear evidence that marijuana in developing brains is associated with harm to attention, cognition, executive control, memory, problem-solving and other brain issues,” said Dr. Dave Downs, a former president of the Colorado Medical Society, who testified on the group’s behalf at a committee hearing.

“It violates the primary principle of practice, which is ‘do no harm,’ ” he added. “I’m concerned that if this bill passes, harm could be a result.”

The biggest conflict in the cannabis industry debate

But to the parents who spoke at the January hearing, it was just the opposite; Hickenlooper’s veto a year earlier was what caused harm. Choking back tears, Margaret Terlaje described to lawmakers how her 10-year-old son, who has autism, would beat himself with his fists and feet. Once, he hurt himself so badly he needed two surgeries to repair the damage.

He was prescribed some traditional pharmaceuticals, but her son had bad reactions to them. “We moved here for cannabis,” she said. And after her son started using it, she said, he hasn’t hurt himself nearly as often.

The conflicting views at the hearing laid bare what is perhaps the single biggest point of contention between cannabis industry supporters and critics. All sides say they want to rely on science to drive policy decisions. But the scientific research available today is insufficient to assess marijuana’s effectiveness as a treatment, or to dispel concerns about the negative effects of long-term use.

“The risk is that people will get their information from people that are profit-minded rather than scientists,” said Kamin, the marijuana law professor. “And the federal government is largely to blame for that. It’s a Schedule 1 drug, which makes it very hard to do medical research on it.”

Absent a large body of research, Kamin said that both sides have been guilty of spreading misinformation. Some opponents have used “scare tactics” to make it seem like legal marijuana has been an unmitigated disaster, he said, while some supporters make it out to be completely benign.

“Both of those things are probably wrong,” Kamin said. But without an extensive body of research — and an ever-evolving landscape of cannabis products — it’s difficult for policymakers to determine what’s right.

Cannabis legislation gets priority this session

More than a half-dozen marijuna-related measures are making progress in the General Assembly, after years of roadblocks on many of the proposals. Here’s a look at where the legislation stands in the final week of the session.

  • Medical marijuana for autism (House Bill 1028): The measure authorized people diagnosed with autism to obtain medical marijuana. Status: Signed into law.
  • Publicly traded marijuana companies (House Bill 1090): The bill would allow publicly traded and private equity firms to invest in Colorado marijuana businesses, removing prior restrictions. Status: Approved by the House. Needs Senate approval.
  • Social consumption (House Bill 1230): The measure would permit people to smoke pot or consume marijuana edibles at “tasting rooms” attached to dispensaries where marijuana is sold. People could also bring their own and consume it at specially licensed hospitality establishments. And it would create an exception to the Clean Air Act, allowing people to smoke inside. Status: Approved by the House. Needs Senate approval.
  • Marijuana delivery (House Bill 1234): The measure would allow medical and eventually retail marijuana to be delivered directly to customers. Status: Approved by the House. Needs Senate approval.
  • Cannabis research (House Bill 1311): The measure would set up an oversight board for the Institute of Cannabis Research at Colorado State University-Pueblo and directs it to study the health and economic effects of cannabis. However, it does not provide any additional funding. Status: Approved by the House. Needs Senate approval.
  • Restoring gun rights (Senate Bill 93): The measure would restore gun rights to felons who were convicted of marijuana offenses that are now legal under the state Constitution. Status: Needs approval in both chambers.
  • Sunset medical and retail marijuana programs (Senate Bills 218 and 224): These measures would reauthorize Colorado’s medical and retail marijuana programs as part of the state’s periodic sunset review process, and change various regulations, such as merging similar requirements that apply to medical and retail marijuana, and streamlining the licensing processes at the state and local level. Status: Approved by the Senate. Requires House approval.
  • Medical marijuana in lieu of opioids (Senate Bill 13): The measure would allow medical marijuana to be used for any condition that doctors could also prescribe opiates to treat. Status: Approved by the Senate. Requires House approval.

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Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @brianeason