“Welcome to ground zero,” says Teri Robnett. She gestures at her desk, which takes up much of the living room in the cozy bungalow that the 58-year-old shares with her husband, Greg Duran, near Regis University. By this point in the legislative session, it’s piled high with bill drafts, fact sheets and handwritten planning notes, not to mention bottles of pills and a marijuana vape pen that Robnett uses for her fibromyalgia.
For years, this room has been ground zero for the state’s medical marijuana patient movement. A former web marketing consultant who co-owned Denver’s Big Tree Pedicab Management with Duran, Teri got a crash course in cannabis in 2009, when she became communications director at the Peace in Medicine Center, one of Denver’s first dispensaries. Then, after Amendment 64 passed in November 2012 and Robnett learned there was no medical marijuana patient advocate on the task force to determine how to implement recreational marijuana in the state, she took it upon herself to become a de facto member. She attended nearly every meeting and spoke up to ensure that medical marijuana concerns weren’t lost in the planning process. Around that same time, she used a $30,000 inheritance she’d received after her brother died of prostate cancer to launch the grassroots organization Cannabis Patients Alliance. Now, while Duran takes the lead in running the Good Lab — a private consulting lab based in their home that tests marijuana for patients, caregivers and others who can’t access other Colorado testing facilities because they aren’t licensed marijuana businesses — Robnett spearheads one advocacy effort after another. Her work has led former state marijuana czar Andrew Freedman to label her “the patient advocate of Colorado.”
Robnett can play the political game, shmoozing at fundraisers and speaking succinctly and compellingly during testimony at the Capitol. When it’s needed, however, she’s willing to unleash grassroots passion, filling the Capitol with angry patients when there’s no other way to stop a bill. “People now know we can play nice,” she says, “or we can make things really ugly.”
At first, marijuana businesses worked closely with Robnett. “The industry loved me,” she remembers. “I was advocating for good policy, which benefited them.” But that changed as the industry grew larger and more entrenched, and many of the patient protections Robnett was fighting for became a threat to the industry’s bottom line. “We don’t have the financial backing the industry does,” she says. “What the patients have is people and sympathy and media.” But those resources go only so far as marijuana businesses develop political and financial clout and the state becomes increasingly dependent on massive recreational marijuana tax revenues. (The governor has proposed using marijuana revenues to fund affordable housing, and as the session was winding down, lawmakers floated the idea of increasing recreational cannabis sales taxes to balance the state budget.)
For years, the best Robnett and other patient advocates could do was hold off truly disastrous legislation. So while new legislation has allowed the recreational market to develop in new and exciting directions, the state’s medical marijuana program atrophied. Doctors now face new penalties for making too many medical marijuana recommendations, and unlike recreational marijuana products, medical marijuana still isn’t required to be tested for pesticides and contaminants. Robnett is afraid that medical marijuana will eventually be subsumed by the adult-use market, where prices are higher, potencies are lower, and products aren’t geared toward patient needs. Last year, Washington state shut down nearly all of its medical dispensaries, forcing most patients to buy their medicine, at a slight discount, from recreational shops. “I think there is definitely a push in that direction here,” says Robnett. “It’s coming.”
But when Sovine-Miller first approached Cannabis Patients Alliance about helping stem that tide this legislative session, Robnett balked. While she’d been impressed by Sovine-Miller’s work on Jack’s Law, Robnett’s opinion of the lobbyist had soured when, late in the 2016 session, she’d helped kill a child-welfare bill. Sovine-Miller was worried the bill put a target on the back of every Colorado family that used cannabis as medicine, but the legislation had been the culmination of years of work by Robnett to turn advocates of drug-endangered children from adversaries to allies. “It was incredibly devastating,” Robnett says of the bill’s defeat. For that, the Cannabis Patients Alliance honored Sovine-Miller with its 2016 “Brutus Award,” given to the person who most betrayed them.
Still, Robnett could see that Sovine-Miller was gearing up to get things done during the 2017 session. The national drug-reform advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance had hired her to advocate at the Capitol for social-justice issues such as child-welfare reforms. “To have a lobbyist with a personal story like hers who at the same time can play a bipartisan role? That really can’t be beat,” says DPA state director Art Way. And when the Hoban Law Group, a Denver-based cannabis law firm, hired Sovine-Miller to help shepherd a bill to add PTSD to the state’s list of medical marijuana conditions, an issue Robnett had been working on for years, she agreed to work with the lobbyist, too.
Sovine-Miller, along with Robnett, veterans’ advocates and parent activists like Linn, helped neutralize opposition to the PTSD bill from several dozen health-care lobbyists, allowing it to eventually pass in both the Senate and the House. But in the middle of that process, a bigger issue dropped: a bill backed by the governor to limit marijuana home grows to twelve plants statewide. The goal was to keep the black market from taking advantage of Colorado’s liberal home-grow laws — until then, patients had been allowed to grow up to 99 plants and consolidate their allowances in untracked greenhouses — to grow and ship cannabis out of state. But the law would have been devastating for medical marijuana patients, says Sovine-Miller. “The only people who need more than twelve plants are the extremely medically fragile,” she says. “Most of them cannot afford the volume of plant material they need from dispensaries for their medical concentrates, and if they did, they’re concerned it would be laden with pesticides.”
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