New law marks milestone for medical cannabis advocates

Douglas County family among those who pushed for expanded cannabis access in schools

Jessica Gibbs
jgibbs@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 5/11/21

There is a new law in Colorado that’s broadening access to medical cannabis in schools, and it marks a major milestone for medical cannabis advocates, including a Douglas County family that’s …

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New law marks milestone for medical cannabis advocates

Douglas County family among those who pushed for expanded cannabis access in schools

Posted

There is a new law in Colorado that’s broadening access to medical cannabis in schools, and it marks a major milestone for medical cannabis advocates, including a Douglas County family that’s spent years fighting local school district policy.

Districts are now required to create policies allowing for the safe storage of non-smokable medical cannabis on school grounds, and districts must allow staff to volunteer to administer medical cannabis to students.

Gov. Jared Polis at a May 5 bill signing for SB21-056 called the law “a long time coming.”

It builds on two previous pieces of legislation called Jack’s Law and Quintin’s Amendment. A 2016 law allowed primary caregivers and parents to come to school and administer medical cannabis. The law was amended in 2018 to also allow school personnel to volunteer and administer the medications.

Since then, two of the state’s 178 districts have changed their policies, one by allowing staff to administer hemp products only and the other by allowing products with THC as well.

“It’s also the culmination of communities coming together to make it happen, to make change,” Polis said.

Emotional testimony

As the bill made its way through the Capitol, bipartisan sponsors touted it as benefiting hundreds of students in Colorado who need cannabis to treat serious conditions.

Democratic Sen. Julie Gonzales told Colorado Community Media the bill was an effort to clarify “once and for all” medical cannabis policies in schools.

“What I love about this work is this is a nonpartisan issue, this isn’t a Democrat or Republican policy, this is about trying to do what’s right for students who find themselves in exceptionally dangerous circumstances,” she said in March.

The bill’s success was spurred on early in the approval process by emotional testimony from children and families who rely on medical cannabis, she said.

“We heard from parents who for the first time were able to connect with their kids after shifting from heavy pharmaceuticals to medical cannabis,” she said.

Gonzales said it was an honor to work with state senator and Republican Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a champion of the bill.

At the May 5 bill signing, Holbert recalled that prior to the bill going before the Senate Education Committee in February, he knew of three “yes” votes on the panel, and he needed four to advance it. After advocates and people who rely on medical cannabis testified, it passed the committee unanimously. The bill eventually passed the Senate 33-1 and the House 57-6.

Holbert said that while drafting the 2021 legislation he worked with nurse associations to determine what those personnel would need to feel comfortable administering medical cannabis in schools. Requiring instructions from a recommending physician was one aspect of the bill that came out of those discussions, he said.

The bill was written so that the cannabis products would remain in an adult’s control while at school, not in the hands of children, he said, and so school boards will have discretion over how the products are stored on school grounds. That will give them power to address any security concerns they might have, he said.

The 2021 law shields personnel from retaliation, whether they do or do not volunteer to administer medical cannabis. That includes protecting a nurse’s license.

Students must provide instructions from their recommending physician for how to administer the cannabis products, such as dosing and timing, and principals must agree to and sign a written treatment plan for administering the medical cannabis.

Holbert first got involved in medical cannabis policy work roughly six years ago because of the Wann family, he said.

Polis said May 5 the Wann family went “above and beyond the call of duty,” contacting everyone they could at the local, state and federal level to address roadblocks for medical cannabis in schools. The effort was “a perfect example of citizen-led” advocacy, he said.

Local advocacy

The Highlands Ranch family has been involved in medical cannabis advocacy throughout the state for years, while also locked in a dispute with the Douglas County School District over its medical cannabis policy.

In response to interview requests with Superintendent Corey Wise about the new law, a spokeswoman provided a statement saying the Douglas County School District “will make revisions to policy and procedures consistent with the law.” School Board President David Ray was not immediately available for comment on SB21-056.

Ben Wann, 19, has epilepsy and uses cannabis oil to prevent seizures. He’s been seizure-free since switching off pharmaceuticals several years ago, his family said. He also relies on a nasal spray containing THC to stop any breakthrough seizures should one occur.

Ben was not allowed to store the emergency-use nasal spray at school under current district policy while a student at Mountain Vista High School.

Ben and his parents, Brad and Amber, spent much of 2018 and 2019 asking DCSD to change its policy by allowing medical cannabis to be kept at schools and to let staff volunteer to administer medical cannabis to students.

The family lived several minutes from Ben’s high school. A serious seizure could cause brain damage or life-threatening complications within seconds, they said. Policies permitting parents and caregivers to bring cannabis to school and administer it to children placed students like Ben in danger, the family said.

The district and school board largely remained steadfast in upholding the policy prohibiting storage on school grounds and barring staff from administering medical cannabis, citing concerns that cannabis remained a Schedule I drug at the federal level and fears about losing federal funding.

Ray in October 2019 offered to put the policy up for review on the board’s agenda but then changed course, saying he later learned of an investigation at a state agency and the district would take up the policy work after that resolved.

The Wanns confirmed they filed a complaint with the Colorado Division of Civil Rights in October 2019. The complaint alleged the school board was usurping powers granted to school principals by state law and discriminating against Ben.

The state agency found there was probable cause, or enough evidence to support, the Wanns’ allegation that DCSD was discriminating against Ben through its policy.

The discrimination complaint process then allows complainants to further pursue their cases through civil court lawsuits.

The family’s attorney, Alex Buscher, said they decided against suing the district because that would only address Ben’s case and not help students using medical cannabis statewide. The family instead threw its support behind a legislative push, he said.

Brad and Amber called the bill signing surreal. The couple and Ben stood behind Polis as he signed the bill at the Capitol.

“It was a huge relief to know that at this point forward, Ben will have access to his medication and other young people like Ben will also have access to their medication,” Brad said. “It just ended the discrimination.”

Ben graduated from Mountain Vista but remains in the district’s Bridge program, which serves students ages 18 to 21 with personalized learning needs.

There are still hurdles to jump, Brad said. The family plans to watch closely as the Colorado Department of Education and local school districts write policies in line with the law. He’s not sure how quickly that might happen, but the Wanns plan to advocate for fast turnarounds before the law takes effect later this year.

“I guess for us the true mark of this will be the day we actually get to walk in (to school) with his medicine and leave it there,” Amber said.

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