A new bill in Colorado would make it easier for children who possess a valid medical cannabis recommendation to access their medications during the school day.
As Colorado’s law stands today, school principals are the only people who can decide who can store, possess, and administer cannabis-based medicines in school settings. Senate Bill 56 would instead require school boards to create rules around medical cannabis for young patients. The bill would “protect” school employees who volunteer to possess, store, and administer medical cannabis “from retaliation,” presumably from federal law enforcement, and would also offer “disciplinary protection” to nurses who give students their medical cannabis at school.
SB 56, sponsored by Senators Julie Gonzales and Chris Holbert and Representatives Matt Gray and Kevin Van Winkle, passed a second reading on Tuesday and a third and final reading on Wednesday. The bill will now head to the House.
The bill was subject to some amendments on Tuesday. For example, private schools are exempted, as would be public schools located on federal land.
“We do have some public schools that are on military installations, for instance. And if the federal government says this is not allowed, then those schools don’t have to do it,” Holbert said during a Senate hearing on Tuesday.
Additionally, Holbert referenced some “concern” that passage and implementation of the bill might put federal school funding “at risk,” as cannabis remains federally illegal, though dozens of states of medical cannabis laws and 15 states and Washington D.C. have passed adult use laws.
“That has not happened here in Colorado, and it did not happen under the Obama administration. And then there was a significant change. It didn’t happen under the Trump administration. And now we had another significant change. And I see no indication that it would actually happen under the Biden administration,” Holbert said.
Holbert, a Republican, said he was “wrong” about medical cannabis because he “believed then that real life changing symptom curing medicine couldn’t be made from the cannabis plant. I know now, from meeting Ben Wann and many, many other children and adults, that medicine can be made from the cannabis plant. I was wrong.”
Holbert also took the second reading as an opportunity to explain his evolution of thought on this bill, and children who need medical cannabis.
In 2014, when Holbert was running for his seat, he heard from the Wann family, who asked if Holbert could somehow get the school district, child protection services, district attorney, and sheriff to “leave them alone.” Amber Wann, Holbert said, took her son Ben to school one day, and the school nurse asked why Ben, who had epilepsy, and whom the nurse had helped through “many seizures,” was no longer having seizures.
Holbert said that Amber Wann, who was on school grounds talking to the school nurse, then reached in her purse and pulled out a “little glass vial” of CBD oil called Charlotte’s Web, and explained that consistent doses of CBD oil kept Ben’s seizures at bay. The school nurse reported the Wann family under the duty to report law, for potential child endangerment, which sparked various investigations to “determine whether or not they were endangering Ben’s life by giving him something that cannot get him high, that made his seizures not happen,” Holbert said.
“That was frustrating,” Holbert said, relaying that he told the Wanns that he didn’t have the authority to call off the officials, but he could pass legislation that would protect families like theirs.
“This bill is really a milestone in this effort,” Holbert said, who was also a main sponsor of Jack’s Law back in 2015, which allowed parents or caregivers to go on campuses to dispense cannabis-based medications on school grounds, as long as it was smokeless.
“Senate Bill 56 is the most important bill that I will sponsor, that I’ll bring this year,” Holbert said.
“This is a great bill for parents and students who have struggled in this state unnecessarily. And this will help people. I think that this effort has helped people in a more significant way than anything else I’ve worked on in 10 years in the legislature.”
Senator Rachel Zenzinger, who is the chair of the Education Committee, said it was at first “surprising” that SB 56 was passed out of committee.
“If you just look at it on its face value, it’s very easy to come to the conclusion ‘no, I don’t think we should do this.’ But if you take the time to listen to the testimony of the proponents, all of the different stakeholders and the amendments that were adopted, I think this bill got to a good place,” Zenzinger said. “It was powerful testimony, quite frankly. It was one of the best committee hearings that I’ve ever participated in.”
Zenzinger encouraged her colleagues to vote in favor of the bill.
“I think it supports families. And at the end of the day, it’s about students having what they need to be able to continue to function at school,” Zenzinger said.
Colorado was the early epicenter of “medical cannabis refugees,” often families with a child in their family who had treatment-resistant seizures. Many were inspired to move, cross-country or from other countries, by Charlotte Figi, a Colorado Springs girl who had Dravet Syndrome, a serious seizure disorder. Figi, who catalyzed the movement to help children with intractable seizures access medical cannabis, and was part of Sanjay Gupta’s WEED special on CNN that made global headlines, died last year.
Editor’s note: This story, originally published under the headline “Colorado Senate Poised To Pass Bill To Expand School-Based Medical Cannabis Access,” on March 16, has been updated to reflect the bill’s passage.