Colorado Awards $8.4M in MMJ Research Grants Amidst Controversy

grant money

GLENDALE, Colo. — The crowd of approximately 100 veterans, marijuana patients, doctors and activists erupted in cheers at about noon on December 17, 2014, as the Colorado Board of Health voted unanimously to fund over $8 million worth of medical marijuana research. One veteran tearfully exited the room, overcome with emotion.

Greg Duran, a 20-year veteran of the Air Force who testified in favor of the board awarding the research grants at the meeting, said he was “extremely pleased” with the board’s decision.

“It’s the direction we need to [take],” Duran said, “Without taking the lead and making decisions on what’s going to affect the rest of the country, we’re not true leaders. To be a true leader, we have to think outside of the box, be creative and come up with something new. The health department took that and said we’re going to do the research that’s required.”

Colorado State Senate Bill 14-155 approved the use of funds from the medical marijuana patient registry to be awarded at the board’s discretion. According to the letter from Dr. Larry Wolk to the board making the research recommendations, the fund had $9 million dollars in it, and the Scientific Advisory Council requested roughly $8.4 million. Dr. Wolk not only sits on the Board of Health, but he is the Executive Director and Chair of the Scientific Advisory Council that was created by SB 14-155 to vet and recommend grant applicants. Dr. Wolk recused himself from the board’s vote.

Among those awarded grant funds, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies was selected for its study of the safety and efficacy of marijuana as a treatment for chronic, treatment-resistant post traumatic stress disorder. This particular study, which will be the first U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved study of marijuana, has been embroiled in political controversy since the doctor leading the study was let go from the University of Arizona earlier this year. The University of Arizona claimed it’d go forward with the study, but MAPS was committed to the lead doctor, Dr. Sue Sisley.

Dr. Sisley attended the board meeting. After the board voted unanimously to fund the SAC recommendations, she stood and hugged those around her. Dr. Sisley beamed a smile a mile wide as she thanked the people offering her congratulations.

“We’re very triumphant,” Dr. Sisley said when asked about how she felt after the board’s decision. “It’s a big victory for scientific freedom here. We finally get to study these plants in an objective way to get some real information and data.”

Other studies awarded grants are investigating the efficacy of cannabidiol as a treatment for pediatric epilepsy; a double-blind, placebo-controlled test of marijuana versus oxycodone; and research into whether adolescents with inflammatory bowel disease would benefit from marijuana use. Wendy Turner brought an “entourage” of children with her as she gave tearful testimony to the board about how marijuana saved the life of her son with Crohn’s disease.

Despite the jubilation many felt at the board’s decision, not everyone was equally pleased. A group of what Duran described as “agitators” took issue with the source of the research funding and testified against it. They also called into question the integrity of the board, called Dr. Wolk a liar, and one of them wore a Looney Tunes tie “for the actions of the department.”

Phillip Barton, a cannabis patient and Army veteran who told the board he was diagnosed with PTSD, that he is bipolar, dyslexic and an eighth grade dropout, said he could do the research on the money, and that it clearly needs to go back to the patients. He was perturbed that money from the state of Colorado could go to PTSD treatment studies that would occur in other states, and also that he couldn’t participate in those studies, partly financed by him as a Colorado marijuana patient.

Barton then told Dr. Wolk that he is on the board due to a lack of ethics and that the board “deserves to be put in those rat cages they put around the city.”

Another veteran found Barton’s remarks irksome and confronted him in the hallway after the board vote. Both argued that they fought for the First Amendment, but the man who confronted Barton pointed out that the board didn’t steal the money, it was given to the board by the legislature. This was also pointed out by board member Dr. Christoper Stanley at the end of the meeting during the board discussion.

“We’re not charged, I don’t believe anyway, with making the determination of the dollar amount, or even whether it’s appropriate from a constitutional viewpoint. We’re charged from the senate bill to determine how these funds are distributed,” Dr. Stanley said.

The money allocated to these research grants came from the surplus in fees the state collected from patients who registered for a medical marijuana license. The registry fees are only meant to cover the administrative costs of medical marijuana licensing. According to The Denver Post, the first licenses issued in Colorado back in 2000 cost $140 to obtain; however, over the last 14 years, that price has gone down several times to the current cost of $15 to receive a medical marijuana “red card” as they are known in Colorado.

Kathleen Chippi has filed a lawsuit as “an individual and member of the Patient and Caregiver Rights Litigation Project” against Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, the Colorado Board of Health, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and Dr. Wolk over the research funding. The lawsuit said patient fees cannot be used to fund the Colorado Medical Marijuana Research Grant Program, because Colorado’s Amendment 20 (now known as Article XVIII, Section 14 of the Colorado Constitution) that legalized medical marijuana in 2000 said that funds can only be used for the “direct and indirect administrative costs” of maintaining the marijuana patient registry.

Chippi didn’t mince words with the board when she testified against the funding, “It’s not going to happen,” Chippi said, “you don’t have the legal right. The research program is not mentioned in the Colorado Amendment 20 medical marijuana language. You know it. You’ve been trying for three years to steal [this money].” Chippi told the board she is for research, but that it’s wrong to take it from sick people.

“It is appalling, it’s shameful, and I will do everything as I have promised […] you will not get the $10 million. And I support all research. Take the money from somewhere else,” Chippi said in her closing statement to the board.

Robert Chase of the Colorado Coalition of Patients and Caregivers testified against the funding because by using this money for these studies, the state is calling medical marijuana research an indirect administrative cost, which is “a stretch.” Chase also said nothing would prevent the state from increasing the fees if scientific research can be considered an indirect administrative cost.

Patient activist Jessica LeRoux, who was there supporting Chippi and Barton, said that their group represented the old guard, and that they are being marginalized by newcomers from the industry.

LeRoux also pointed out that a June 2013 audit of the Medical Marijuana Regulatory System found that the state had set its fees too high, which resulted in way too much money. The fee has since been lowered. Still, the audit found numerous concerns, including the concern that the state may have breached the constitution by allowing state and contract firms access to the confidential registry, and also that the Medical Marijuana Cash Fund has been out of compliance in regards to its limit of uncommitted reserves since 2004. As of the audit, that amount was $11.3 million, the biggest excess in any of the state’s funds.

As LeRoux pointed out, the audit recommended using those funds to reduce or suspend the registry fees for patients until the excess reserve balance complies with the law. As it turned out, the state senate passed a law to use the excess money paid by patients to fund marijuana research.

Duran voiced his displeasure with the dissenters. “This group over here they just f‑‑‑ everything up. They screwed up so many things for us. They’re not advocates, they’re in it for themselves. They’re not even from here. They just come in and insult people and b‑‑‑‑ at them, and come up with things to sue people on. All they are is agitators. Some people do the real work. I don’t make noise, I don’t sue people. I bring people together to speak.”

It has yet to be determined whether a legal battle is about to ensue or if the research will begin as scheduled. What is certain is that both sides of this debate on medical marijuana research funding granted by the Colorado Board of Health are at risk of having their feelings hurt.

Matt Berg is a writer from Northwest Denver. Matt writes on a range of topics including science, music, motorcycles, politics, sports and more. He is always looking for adventure and his next story to tell. Connect with Matt on Twitter: @tomjoad187.

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