Colorado’s marijuana industry flexed its big muscles and now an effort to limit pot potency is unraveling

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State Rep. Yadira Caraveo says her proposal to limit the potency of marijuana sold recreationally in Colorado was just in its beginning stages. But when draft legislation was recently leaked and prominent figures in the state’s cannabis industry created an uproar, the measure started unraveling. 

Now, Caraveo, a Thornton Democrat and pediatrician, is backing off parts of the measure and loosening the restrictions in what’s left.

“Given the pushback that we’ve had overall on the bill,” she said, “we really want to streamline it and focus it on the things that we think absolutely need to happen this year.”

The episode is a prime example of the multibillion-dollar cannabis industry’s growing clout in Colorado politics. Marijuana interests have been spending more money on lobbying at the state Capitol but haven’t quite flexed their muscles like this since voters approved recreational pot sales in 2012. 

There have been newspaper articles with dire quotes. There have been opinion pieces. There have been social media posts

“It makes sense that the cannabis industry is utilizing whatever resources we have to right this proposal,” said Peter Marcus, communications director for Terrapin Care Station, a major marijuana retailer. “Because without any true research or peer-reviewed science behind the subject, this rushing to policy like this — which would put the industry out of business overnight — doesn’t make any sense.”

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

Caraveo’s initial proposal, which she says was always supposed to be a negotiating floor, was to limit the potency of marijuana products sold in Colorado to 15% THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis that gets people high.

“The potency is going to change, but we have not reached a number,” said Caraveo, who is also a pediatrician. “We’re still talking to leadership and other groups about it. It’s not going to be 15%.”

She said 15% was supposed to be a research-based floor that mimics the way the Netherlands regulates cannabis potency.

She said she has already cut parts of the bill that would have prevented “budtenders,” or retail marijuana salespeople, from working on commission, as well as limits on advertising to prevent companies from marketing to kids. Caraveo also wanted to outlaw vaping products that looked like innocuous items, such as a highlighter pen. 

“I think those are fights to take on at another time,” she said.

Caraveo, who is one of the first Democrats in the state to clash with the marijuana industry, said she launched her effort because “the products available now are not the products Colorado legalized.” Many strains of marijuana flower that are sold in Colorado have a potency above 15%. She’s particularly worried about children’s access to cannabis concentrates, which can have a THC makeup of 70% or higher, and their effects on a developing brain. 

Colorado currently has no potency limit.

“We haven’t reevaluated what the industry has done, in terms of effects on youth and effects overall, since we legalized (marijuana),” Caraveo said. 

Of the states that have legalized recreational marijuana sales, only Vermont has a potency cap. The state’s legislature imposed a 30% limit on THC for cannabis flower and a 60% THC limit on cannabis oil products.

The big difference between how Vermont handled its potency caps and what Caraveo is trying to do is that Vermont’s limits were put in place when recreational marijuana was legalized late last year. Colorado’s marijuana industry has been operating without potency caps since recreational sales began in 2014, and cannabis advocates argue it would be hard to put the smoke back in the pipe.

Men wait outside of Rocky Mountain Cannabis located on U.S. 40 near downtown Dinosaur Colorado. Dinosaur has three recreational cannabis shops that contribute about $25,000 in tax revenues to the town, which has only 320 residents. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“This would be problematic on a number of levels,” said Mason Tvert, a partner at the cannabis policy and public affairs firm VS Strategies who helped lead Colorado’s 2012 marijuana legalization campaign. “The primary reason being that it is going to incentivize a new illegal supply to meet demand for whatever products are no longer allowed. But, more importantly, there’s really no good justification for doing it.” 

Truman Bradley, who leads the Marijuana Industry Group, also attacked the proposal for not being based on data. “This is not a bill that’s scientifically backed.”

One study out of the United Kingdom and published in a peer-reviewed journal, however, found that the “use of high-potency cannabis was associated with a significant increase in the frequency of cannabis use, likelihood of cannabis problems, and likelihood of anxiety disorder.”

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also studied high-potency marijuana products. “Products containing a high THC concentration raise public health concern because increased dose may lead to higher potential for adverse health effects in consumers of these products,” the agency wrote.

Want exclusive political news and insights first? Subscribe to The Unaffiliated, the political newsletter from The Colorado Sun. That’s where this story first appeared.

Even with the changes, the potency bill is likely to fail in the Democratic-controlled statehouse.  Caraveo has yet to secure a fellow Democratic prime sponsor for the legislation. Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, has signed onto the measure. Rep. Terri Carver, a Colorado Springs Republican, says she is reviewing a draft ahead of deciding whether to sign on.

Lundeen said he’s looking forward to a nuanced policy discussion that protects kids but doesn’t hurt what’s become an increasingly important Colorado industry.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, has expressed skepticism about the proposal. Democrat Jared Polis, the nation’s first pot governor and the ultimate arbiter on the bill, is unlikely to cross the cannabis industry and says he supports other ways of driving down youth marijuana use.

“We haven’t seen the bill yet,” Polis said Tuesday. “We share the goal of protecting children. I think the best way to do that would be to increase penalties on anybody who sells legal or illegal marijuana to children.”

The Colorado legislature resumes its 2021 lawmaking session on Feb. 16. 

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