Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, above, met with parents before vetoing the bill. (David Zalubowski/AP)
After a day of emotional meetings at the state capitol in Denver, and in a move that surprised many advocates of medical marijuana, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper vetoed a bill on Tuesday that would have added autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to the list of ailments legally treatable with medical cannabis in his state.
A day earlier Hickenlooper had vetoed another cannabis-related measure, a bipartisan bill that would have allowed so-called “tasting rooms” at legal cannabis stores in Colorado, where patrons would have been able to sample some edible or vaping products.
The autism measure, HB 18-1263, was introduced into the Colorado legislature this past March and was passed with a minimum of political controversy by the state House and Senate. It was not supported, however, by the head of the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment (DPHE).
Bill Passed, but Hickenlooper Balked
Michelle Walker, director of the Colorado chapter of Mothers Advocating Medicinal Marijuana for Autism (MAMMA) and the group’s national communications director, moved to Colorado from Texas nearly 18 months ago, to ensure her ten-year-old son who is autistic had access to legal cannabis for his epileptic seizures.
Walker helped to shepherd HB 18-1263 through the state legislature. She said the measure had been paired with another bill that was passed by Governor Hickenlooper earlier this week, allowing non-smokable medical marijuana to be administered by school personnel in Colorado to students who have a medical marijuana card as well as parental permission.
But when Hickenlooper signed the school bill without the autism bill, she told Leafly, “we started to ask questions and we reached out to the governor’s office: what about autism?” And when state officials couldn’t say what was happening with the autism bill “we really had to follow our gut instincts on this and take action,” she added.
Walker gathered up a half-dozen members of MAMMA in Colorado and, along with their autistic children and a variety of supporters, camped outside of Governor Hickenlooper’s office on Tuesday. After a short delay, the governor met with the parents in a closed-door meeting.
“He came forward with a lot of concerns,” she said. “Safety with pediatric patients; that people were just going to go and give their children cannabis the moment that they’re diagnosed (with ASD), as well as the perceived lack of research.”
‘Compelling Arguments’ on Both Sides
At a press conference after the meeting Hickenlooper – who said his family has also dealt with ASD – admitted there were “compelling arguments” on both sides of the issue.
However, he told reporters, “If we sign that bill, we end up without question in some way encouraging more young people to look at this for an antidote for their problems.”
At the end of the day, several hours later, the governor’s office issued both news of his veto and a letter from Hickenlooper explaining his actions.
Noting the “passion and eloquence” of the parents he spoke with, Hickenlooper said he “did not issue this veto lightly.” But he added that the medical professionals consulted on this issue “all share the same concern that we lack adequate information to ensure the safety and efficacy of MMJ (medical marijuana) when used by children with ASD.”
Hickenlooper said he had also signed an executive order for Colorado health officials to study the use of medical marijuana for ASD and to “prioritize fiscal resources” for that research.
Try Again Next Year
Walker noted her organization had devoted a lot of time educating Colorado lawmakers about the benefits of treating ASD with cannabis, and that the veto had left her heartbroken.
“Not only as someone who worked very hard this legislative session and poured their hearts and souls into the bill, but also as the mother of an autistic child,” she said. “I watched so many families come up there and bravely share their stories. One family sat outside the hearing while their child had a meltdown for three hours. And this child doesn’t qualify (for medical marijuana); this child has no other conditions.”
In the meantime, Walker added, “we find a way to help these families access legal medical cannabis for their children through other qualifying conditions. We cannot wait until the next [legislative session] because it truly is a matter of life and death for some of these children.”