(Promoted by Colorado Pols)
"This is going to be one of the great social experiments of this century"
~Governor John Hickenlooper
Yesterday's senate hearing on SB14-177 and SB14-178 drew a standing-room-only crowd; one that ultimately demanded an overflow room for the observers and witnesses. The attendees were a broad swath of Colorado citizens: mother and child, medical refugees desperate to find a remedy for their child's condition; attorneys, social workers, business owners, political activists, lobbyists, and myself as the sole farmer in the room. It was an afternoon of passionate testimony by medical marijuana activists who see the bill as a subtle, some may say "backroom" attempt, to recriminalize the use and or possession of cannabis under section 18-18-102 of the Colorado statute. The vague language of the proposed bill caused confusion even amongst the law enforcement and social workers who provided testimony for both the proponents and the opposition.
I'm forever in awe of the breadth and depth of the human and social capacity that Colorado possesses. The testimony by Jeri Shepard, a Greeley attorney, was compelling. Jeri went point by salient point, deconstructing the myths around legalization, she offered to the members of the Judiciary Committee they read the book, "The New Jim Crow", an exercise she had participated in as a group Lenten exercise. If one was measuring the prudence of Coloradans ending prohibition in 2012 by Jeri's testimony, you wouldn't describe our efforts as "a great social experiment". You would call it "leadership".
We heard from a prominent pediatric doctor; then a Ph.D. in microbiology who explained in detail how cannabis interacts with a gestating mother – backed by a pile of studies that debunk, once again, the myths of cannabis use. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the day was during the testimony of a Colorado Springs mother who sat with her 22-month old daughter and shared how her daughter had been healed with medical marijuana and cannabidiol oil. The mother, like many others, sat in the hearing room for hours for the opportunity to share their story. The young girl was restless as her mother spoke. Senator Johnson interrupted the mother and asked her if he could hold the child while she finished her testimony. Senator Johnson, a seasoned father of three, held the child – who immediately became calm as the Senator rocked her gently. There was barely a dry eye in the room. He's a good man.
I was not only impressed by the quality of the witnesses – but also of each member of the Judiciary Committee. Senators Steve King and Kevin Lundberg offered thoughtful input and shared mutual concerns about the bills overreach. And Senator Lucia Guzman – an absolute gem. She chaired the long and sometime contentious environment with a gentle, calming grace. A particular shout out to William Bartlett of Colorado's Green Party. His reasoned and thoughtful comments would resound with anyone, regardless of their political stripe.
There was little consensus amongst the professionals as to whether the bill broadened or narrowed the obligations of mandated reporters and social workers in the state.
At times, the testimony implied these bills were solutions seeking a problem.
What was crystal clear throughout the debate was the fundamental conflict between the Colorado Constitution as amended via Amendment 64, (an act by 55% of Colorado voters in 2012 to end prohibition) – and federal law, the Controlled Substances Act, that treats marijuana and industrial hemp as Schedule 1 substances.
Under the proposed legislation the mere possession of a single cannabis plant, a guaranteed right under our state constitution, constituted prima facie evidence of 'child endangerment'.
My concern with both SB14-177 and SB14-178 is their deficiency in rationale. These bills lack resources to educate mandatory reporters so that families aren't being wrongfully accused or harassed. They lack the funding for parents to get legal counsel to protect themselves and their family. They lack a clear pathway for family reunification. They contain zero dollars for law enforcement education. They lack zero dollars for mandatory reporter training.
But the most troubling zero in the bill that is being sold to be about prevention child abuse is the word "prevention": a document search of both bills finds the word prevention zero times.
State civil and criminal law already addresses child abuse. Science tells us that not all substance use equate abuse. Morality tells us that substance abuse orders are a medical condition, not a criminal action. Compassion tells us helping a parent recover is better for a child than throwing the parent in jail. Data tells us that children who end up in child protective services has checkered outcomes.
As a fifth-generation agriculturalist from the eastern plains, my core was defined by the stewardship of the land. It struck me by days-end that what the passage of Amendment 64 is giving Coloradans the opportunity to cultivate and rediscover the gift of stewarding our fellow man. This isn't a grand experiment. That experiment began nearly eight decades ago. That experiment was prohibition: 77 years and $1.5 trillion dollars later this nation has achieved little but gold-plated merit badges representing a failed drug war, incarceration rates the highest in the world and families and communities destroyed. What Amendment 64 has given us is the opportunity to change that course. One that focuses on compassion, empathy and equity. One that understands that, at the core of this debate, is our fundamental failure of our society to address addiction and addictive personalities.
Everyone in the room yesterday was there because of someone they love or because they believe a nurturing environment for a child is everyone's responsibility. On that we can all agree. I have no doubt that the bill sponsors, Senators Linda Newell and Senator Andy Kerr have the best of intentions. But Colorado is in the unique position to not only shift the paradigm of decades of neglect in addressing the core of our drug challenges.
The nation is watching – let's get it right. This isn't an experiment – most would call it leadership. Let's scrap these two bills, go back to the drawing board, open the debate to the public – and offer a 21st-century alternative that gets it right.
We have nothing to apologize for – let's celebrate our unique opportunity to lead.