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- Gov. Hickenlooper’s veto of the autism bill hit families hard.
Michelle Walker, founder of MAMMA, and her family moved to Colorado from Texas so her 10-year-old son Vincent would have access to medical cannabis to treat his epilepsy and severe autism. Seizures are on the list of qualifying conditions to be legally prescribed medical cannabis, and once Walker began administering it to Vincent, his autism, as well as his epilepsy, dramatically improved.
The bill passed the Legislature with bipartisan support, with the vast majority of legislators in both houses supporting it. All it needed was the governor’s signature, so the MAMMAs and their children visited the Capitol to make sure it happened.
For Walker and Vincent, a trip to the Capitol to meet with the governor wasn’t nearly as treacherous an endeavor as it once might have been. When he became too nervous sitting at the big, long table with Hickenlooper at the head, Vincent simply got up and stood off to the side — exhibiting a self-awareness and ability to manage his emotions that he didn’t have before cannabis, Walker says.
Vincent only became aggressive once during that long, stressful day in Denver, Walker adds, but thankfully, she was able to give him his medication — a nasal spray made with specific terpenes and a finely tuned ratio of THC to CBD and cannabinol (CBN).
“He calmed down and he told me, ‘Vincent’s mad. Vincent’s angry,’” Walker says. “And we just sat down, and I talked to him, and we worked through it.”
But Walker didn’t rally her troops to the Capitol that morning to fight for her and Vincent as much as for mothers like Spirit Wilson and Autumn Brooks and their children.
Like Vincent, Wilson and Brooks’ sons’ autism makes them prone to violent meltdowns. They’ll scream for hours on end, bang their heads into walls, punch, kick, bite and choke their parents or themselves. Unlike Vincent, they don’t suffer from any of the qualifying conditions to receive a prescription for medical cannabis, and without it, they say, they’re out of options.
On the visit to Hickenlooper’s office, Brooks brought 2-gallon Ziploc bags full of medications she and her doctors had tried to treat her 10-year-old son Raven with, including Adderall, antipsychotics, antidepressants, sleeping pills and other drugs.
“I’ve seen these videos on how cannabis affects [other autistic children],” Brooks said. “And I’m going, ‘My son can’t get that.’”
Wilson’s 7-year-old son Chrome had a meltdown in the Capitol after the second meeting with the governor, in which he injured both Walker and Wilson, and Wilson had to pull up Chrome’s shirt to reveal his pacemaker to deter the intervention of a police officer.
On her way home, as she restrained Chrome in the backseat, Wilson remembers hoping that the governor would sign HB1263 today and this would be one of the last meltdowns her son ever had.
The governor held two closed-door meetings with the mothers and their autistic children before issuing the veto later that day. During their meetings, Walker and the other mothers shared their personal testimonies and presented various scientific research to the governor related to the efficacy of cannabis in treating autism.
Hickenlooper told Walker, Brooks, Wilson and the other mothers and their autistic children he met with they would have his decision by 3 p.m., they say, but when 5 p.m. rolled around and Capitol staff asked them to leave, they still didn’t have it.
Hickenlooper vetoed the bill at 5:01 p.m. A press representative from Governor Hickenlooper's office says the governor wanted to take as long as he could to think the decision over, that he wasn't waiting for them to leave. But that's not the impression the mothers walked away with.
When asked about the veto, the mothers interviewed by the Indy had a lot to say, but the first seven words out of their mouths were all the same: “It was a slap in the face.”
“We were devastated,” Wilson says. “My family cried on the way home.”
“He didn’t even have the balls enough to do it in front of us,” says Jamie Kropp, who also visited the Capitol with her autistic son [Kolt]. “Why did you even give us that glimpse of hope, man?”
Hickenlooper gave a multitude of reasons for his decision, some of which the moms characterized as “patronizing,” “appalling” or “fucking crap.” They included concerns about patients along the spectrum of autism disorders having access to cannabis, not enough medical research having been done on cannabis’ efficacy in treating autism, and “encouraging more young people to look at [cannabis] as an antidote for their problems.”
Hickenlooper also shared a personal story with Walker and the other mothers about a former staffer he had known whom he suspected may have had an autism spectrum disorder. This staffer, allegedly, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and later committed suicide sometime after trying cannabis, and the governor told them he was concerned the latter may be linked to the former.
Along with the veto, Hickenlooper issued an executive order ordering the Department of Public Health and Environment “to evaluate the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana for the treatment of autism spectrum disorders in children” and make a determination in no later than 18 months.
But families like Wilson’s and Brooks’ may not have that long.
“I don’t know if I’ll catch him before he tries to put his head through a wall [or] he decides he’s going to punch out a window,” Brooks says, speaking of her son Raven. “At some point, he’s going to kill himself, or he’s going to end up in jail.”
“We can’t wait 18 months. [Chrome] can’t wait three hours,” Wilson said. “We need action now.”
The mothers feel like Hickenlooper was suggesting they could try to get medical cannabis prescriptions for their children by claiming they have chronic pain or muscle spasms (lying) or they could get it through the recreational market. Either would be illegal and result in these parents losing their children, if discovered by the state. Governor Hickenlooper's office denies that Hickenlooper ever implied they break the law, but rather was inquiring why some children had access to medical cannabis while others didn't.
Also, the moms say, medicinal forms of cannabis used to treat autism utilize a finely tuned ratio of THC to CBD and specific terpenes and cannot be purchased at a recreational dispensary.
“These families would not be there at the Capitol all day with their children having meltdowns if they wanted to break the law,” Walker says.
In a press release, cannabis patients, consumers and business leaders called the veto “an affront to patients and families.”
The press release continues: “Standing on the wrong side of history in terms of cannabis policy has repercussions, including political backlash, especially as the popularity of legal marijuana grows nationally.”
Lawmakers cannot override the veto because they are no longer in session. Proponents of the bill plan to reintroduce it in January.
Hickenlooper did sign a closely related bill, House Bill 1286, into law. The bill allows school nurses to administer medical cannabis to children who are prescribed it.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct a misidentification of Chrome Wilson, as well as to address clarifications requested by Governor Hickenlooper's office.