Attack of the lobbyists: SAM

Colorado Democrats worked with anti-cannabis lobbying organizations to pass HB 1317, regulating concentrates and limiting patient access to medicine

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Concept of judge or lawmaker: the paper with the words legalization and prohibition is held by the hands of the man in gray business suit inviting the viewer to choose between one of them.
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The Regulating Marijuana Concentrates bill (HB 1317) passed last year and went into effect on January 1, 2022. Sponsored by Representatives Yadira Caravero (D-Thornton) and Alec Garnett (D-Denver), the bill was publicized as an effort to protect children from the dangers of high-potency marijuana (see Weed Between the Lines, “Concentrated regulation,” July 1, 2021). 

However, opponents of the bill, like Kevin Gallager, the executive director of the Colorado Cannabis Manufacturer’s Association (CCMA), say HB 1317 only harmed Colorado’s medical marjuana patients. He argues that it limits patient access to medical products that they rely on day-to-day. It reduces the amount of medication medical patients can purchase, requires twice as many physician’s recommendations (doubling the price of a medical card), and puts doctors in a legally tricky spot by requiring them to include dosage and potency recommendations (edging dangerously close to cannabis “prescriptions,” which are illegal for medical doctors to give).

Many within Colorado see this bill as a huge step backwards for a pro-cannabis state. It’s a big reason why Colorado’s “medical cannabis access grade” was knocked down to a C+ in 2022 by Americans for Safe Access (ASA) (see Weed Between the Lines, “Front of the medical middle,” March 3, 2022). HB 1317 harms patient rights and civil protections, according to Abby Roudebush, ASA’s director of government affairs. And it does so without just cause.

“We are suing the state to stop this bill from being enacted because it violates so many areas of the law,” Martha Montemayor, director of Colorado Cannabis Clinicians (CCC), says. “It simply shouldn’t be implemented.”  

While both Representatives Caraveo and Garnett are Democrats, many of the organizations that helped fund and craft HB 1317 are deeply rooted in conservative values. Organizations like Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), the nation’s leading anti-marijuana nonprofit policy organization, had a big hand in HB 1317’s passage. SAM is working hard and investing a lot of money to fight legalization in every state and push for increasingly strict regulation—just like Colorado got with HB 1317.

“We’re really proud to have been behind that,” Luke Niforatos, SAM’s chief of staff and senior policy advisor, says. “We were really happy with the way the regulations turned out on the medical side [with HB 1317].”

Niforatos explains SAM is the “top organization holding the [marijuana] industry accountable.” SAM’s position is that “big cannabis” is profiting off “cannabis addiction,” which Niforatos argues is rising at alarming rates across states with legal cannabis. SAM is doing everything it can to stop that exploitation, he says. Addiction to any drug in any form (but especially cannabis) is something he wants to prevent. 

“It’s called ‘cannabis use disorder,’ and that has been going through the roof over the last decade since they started legalizing it,” he says, referencing a study on the Centers for Disease Control’s website that says three-in-10 cannabis users are addicted to the substance. That study, however, published in JAMA Psychiatry, looked only at data from 2001-2002 and 2012-2013, comparing those two years’ reported rates of cannabis use disorder. 

“That’s what we call addiction for profit,” Niforatos says. “And that’s something we want to stop.”

Notably, when asked if he was concerned about the caffeine industry’s exploitation of addiction for profit, Niforatos laughs dismissively. “Caffeine does not [impair you],” he says. “So it’s not even really in the same conversation.”

As for cannabis use disorder (CUD), according to a study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence in 2019, CUD has actually been decreasing across the country since states began legalizing cannabis. Using data pulled from 2002 through 2016 from the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the researchers looked at yearly prevalence of CUD, cannabis dependence and cannabis abuse, examining those trends over time. 

That study concludes, “Contrary to expectations, CUD prevalence decreased significantly across all ages reporting daily/almost daily cannabis use between 2002–2016. Cannabis dependence prevalence decreased for adolescents and young adults and was stable only among adults ages 26+ reporting daily/almost daily cannabis use.”

The federally funded Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey also found that youth marijuana use “decreased significantly” in 2021 despite state reforms like HB 1317. In a press release, National Institute on Drug Abuse director Nora Volkow said they’d never seen such dramatic decreases in drug use among teens in just one year. 

Niforatos nevertheless calls marijuana legalization and the subsequent CUD rates a “public health concern.”

“We really want to put public health first and protect families and kids from the harms of addiction,” Niforatos says. “And we want science to lead the way in the industry.”

According to SAM’s 2018 990 forms, the organization’s 501(c)(4) made $4.4 million and its 501(c)(3) made $3.8 million that year. The (c)(4)s 990s do not itemize contributions to SAM; and those for SAM’s (c)(3) don’t include any information on specific donors. SAM then invests that money to get bills like HB 1317 passed, according to Niforatos. He was very open—even boastful—about SAM’s nonprofit support for HB 1317, its active involvement in lobbying for the bill, advocacy for it, and “input into the writing of the text.”  

Gallager, with the CCMA, says SAM’s opposition to cannabis goes far beyond any moral concerns about addiction or public health. It’s about financial interests preserving their specific profits, he says. 

“This isn’t a ‘Just Say No’ campaign,” Gallager says. “SAM is a war chest aimed at dismantling the industry.”  

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Contact the author with comments or questions at wbrendza@boulderweekly.com

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