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Buying weed: an investment in Pueblo’s future?

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A high school senior suffering from an anxiety disorder wasn’t sure if he could attend Colorado State University-Pueblo because the daily drive to and from campus would cause him undue stress. But in the end the student was given the money he needed to help defray the cost of living on campus, and he is able to make it to classes with a lot less aggravation.

What made this possible?

The Pueblo County Scholarship program is expected to receive $700,000 from the cultivation of marijuana this year. The scholarship was approved by county voters in 2015 and the ballot measure states that primarily Pueblo County graduating high school seniors who plan to attend colleges only located inside the county’s boundaries (in essence CSU-Pueblo or Pueblo Community College) are eligible for the scholarship. County Commissioner Sal Pace, who told a story of the student suffering from anxiety who got the scholarship, is the point man for the county regarding the Pueblo scholarship program. Pace adds that the scholarship is not limited to graduating high school seniors. Those Pueblo residents attending college in the county can also apply. When he is asked why the scholarship only applies to colleges within Pueblo County, he says, “We weren’t sure how much money would be available for the first full-year of funding and how far it would go, but we knew the program would grow over time. This year we will have enough funding to give some additional scholarships based on merit and need. I have a vision of eventually guaranteeing a college scholarship to every local kid.”

Pace says he spoke to several students and parents and received nothing but positive responses to the pot-funded scholarship, which started as a non-marijuana-funded pilot program in 2016.

The majority of the money for the scholarships comes directly from cannabis cultivators who now pay an excise tax each month at a rate of 3 percent of the crops’ unprocessed retail value when the crop is sold or transferred to a retail outlet, even if the retail outlet owns its own marijuana grow house. That tax rate is supposed to increase to 4 percent next year and be capped at 5 percent in 2020. Yet Pace is trying to convince his fellow county commissioners to cap the tax rate at 3 percent this year. Pace says he wants to keep the excise tax rate at its current level “so we don’t drive the small businesses out of business.”

Incidentally, the marijuana money for the scholarship represents roughly half of the total tax dollars collected from pot growers. The rest of the unprocessed cannabis excise tax revenue goes to fund other community enhancement and infrastructure projects.

And Pace doesn’t seem to have any reservations about where the lion’s share of the Pueblo County Scholarship funds come from. “Voters voted for it,” he says, adding, “How do you defend taxes on cars?”

Pace defends the use of the cannabis tax for the scholarship by weighing it against the greater good it would bring the community as a whole. “Our ultimate goal is that the next generation in Pueblo can have a bright future, opportunity for success, and to live their dreams,” he says. “The more educated we are, the more [job] opportunities will come our way.”

Students who benefitted
Twenty-year-old Janet Chavez, a CSU-Pueblo sophomore and Pueblo County Scholarship recipient, also has no qualms about the fact the majority of her scholarship’s funding comes from pot growers. “It [the sale of marijuana] allows me to benefit the community,” says the liberal studies major with a minor in elementary education. “I am able to go to college and to give back to the community in a positive way.”

Also having a clear conscience about cannabis dollars funding his scholarship is Xavier Madrid, who is 20 years old and a CSU-Pueblo junior studying sociology and criminology. “Marijuana has always been seen in a negative light,” he says. “I am just so glad that something so controversial can be utilized in such a positive way seeing that it is investing in the future leaders of America.”

Students receiving the up-to-four-year scholarship, the money from which goes directly to the postsecondary learning institution, are required to perform 40 hours of community service annually throughout their college career. “It’s a great opportunity to serve the community as you’re going through your college experience,” Chavez says.

And Madrid agrees.

“[Community service] has been something I take tremendous pride in,” he says. “For the past couple of years, I have been able to be an assistant baseball coach during the summer, where I taught kids the fundamentals of the game as well as tutor current high school students … . It has not only given me the opportunity to be a role model for those I’ve helped, but also [allows me to] give back to the community that has been my home and was able to invest in me when I needed it the most.”

Chavez, who says she chose to attend college “to receive a higher education and be successful,” would have had to work a full-time job to help pay for tuition and books without the scholarship. Now, she says, she only works part time, which gives her more study time.

Madrid is attending college “not only for [him]self but for [his] family.” He represents the first generation of his family to attend college. Madrid says, “I knew I needed a degree to be appealing to the job market and school has always been something I have excelled in and something I take tremendous pride in. So I knew that college was the right path for me.”

Without the scholarship, Madrid says he “would constantly have to worry about having enough money to cover the tuition.” He says he is one of two children in a family who “never had the financial capability to pay for college [for one child] let alone two tuition bills.” Madrid adds that the scholarship “has helped alleviate the financial burden that comes along with college and given [him] the capability to give back to those who invested in [his] college education.”

Both students said they were able to get through the scholarship application process with ease. “It was a very straight-forward application,” Chavez says. “I went to the website, and it was very simple. Things flowed easily.”

Madrid also says he made it through the scholarship application process with little to no hassle. “It was one of the easiest scholarship applications I have done,” he says. “I simply went to phef.net, printed off the application, received my letters of recommendation, and, boom, I was done.”

But Madrid, who was part of the 2016 pilot program for the scholarship, says it could have been better publicized then. “I learned from my Colorado GEAR UP adviser at the last second seeing that this whole scholarship was relatively new,” he says, adding that he thinks “the whole idea of marijuana funding college education” resulted in high school seniors shying away from the scholarship and kept them from encouraging other seniors to apply for it.

Pilot program grows

The Pueblo Hispanic Education Foundation, or PHEF, is the group the commissioners contracted to manage the Pueblo County Scholarship fund. PHEF receives 10 percent of the total scholarship fund’s annual take for its troubles. Beverly Duran, PHEF’s executive director, says the 2016 pilot program, which consisted of 25 scholarship recipients, has been successful. Of the 25, 23 recipients are still attending college on the scholarship. The other two each have graduated college with associate degrees. Last year, however, was the first time cannabis excise tax dollars were used to fund the scholarship, as stated in the 2015 ballot measure creating the scholarship.

And last year, Duran says 210 students received scholarships. She adds that she tries to keep each scholarship’s value at $2,000 a year per recipient because it can help cover the cost of living on campus (especially for students who don’t have cars), has allowed students to work part-time instead of full-time, or can determine whether a student goes to college at all. (Yet make no mistake, a $2,000 annual scholarship amounts to little more than a drop in the bucket when it comes to overall college expenses. For example, CSU-Pueblo reveals that the cost of living on campus alone is $5,830 per academic year and the money covers roughly three credit hours at the university.)

Last year’s scholarships totaled $420,000, a far cry from the pilot program’s $50,000. And, if all goes as planned, this year’s scholarship allotment of $750,000, (the bulk of which – as stated before – comes from the sale or transfer of unprocessed marijuana), just might fund scholarships for up to 375 students.

As far as publicizing the scholarship, a lot has changed since the pilot program. Commissioner Pace says high school guidance counselors are well-informed of the scholarship’s existence. And Duran says her organization is getting the word out about the scholarships through advertising, articles in print (like this one), and stories airing on area television stations’ news broadcasts. She says even large banners telling of the scholarship’s availability are strung up in high school hallways. Yet alas, Duran laments, despite all the effort, some students and parents still say they weren’t aware of the scholarship.

A COSI alliance

The Pueblo County Scholarship receives state funding from the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative, or COSI, in addition to the cannabis excise tax revenue. Although it is said COSI offers “matching funds” to those raised through the marijuana tax, the funds don’t match at all.

So far, PHEF has received two COSI awards – one for $226,597 in 2016 and another for $210,685 last year – each are spread over four years in varying amounts, according to COSI’s director Shelley Banker. She adds that those funds are encumbered. “We do not anticipate funding decisions from the Legislature to have an impact on those current commitments,” Banker says. “Similarly, PHEF and Pueblo County have another opportunity to apply [this year] for $214,291 from our program.” PHEF’s Duran says she plans to start the paperwork on the county’s request for the 2018 COSI allotment, which will be awarded in the summer, soon.

Statewide, COSI offers $7.5 million annually to communities “based on an assessment of total dollars in our COSI fund, projected future spending, and community participation,” Banker says. She adds that “COSI is seeking an additional $4 million in state funding this legislative session so that we can increase the number of program and scholarship grants and serve even more students through our grants in future years.” The COSI request is part of the Long Bill, or the state’s budget bill. General Assembly discussions on the Long Bill begin to pick up around the middle of this month.

However, any additional statewide COSI allotment, should the General Assembly approve it as part of the Long Bill, would not be available until 2019. “The $4 million appropriation would contribute significantly to the sustainability of our program long term,” Banker says, “and would help maintain current levels of … scholarship aid, like that accessed in Pueblo.”

Banker espouses the value COSI brings to the Pueblo community. “It’s partnerships like that with Pueblo County and Pueblo Hispanic Education Foundation that contribute to the success of COSI statewide, and allow us together to help more Colorado students pursue and complete postsecondary education,” she says. “The particular source [a marijuana tax] of the match committed by the Pueblo County commissioners is one example of how communities are creatively utilizing our matching grant opportunity to leverage state funding and make dollars go further.”

A cannabis conundrum

It may be a challenge for some to philosophically justify tacitly advocating the recreational use of cannabis, but through a vote of the people of Pueblo County, recreational marijuana now fits into the same category as recreational alcohol and tobacco. Yet tax money from each of those substances has been going toward improving communities for decades in terms of sales taxes and other means. And that’s what the Pueblo County Scholarship program does in its own small way – improve the community. COSI’s Banker has this to say about Pueblo cannabis-funded scholarship: “Not only has the community embraced this opportunity, but they are also showing success with the money. Our latest outcome report notes that Pueblo County students receiving COSI funds through the Pueblo Hispanic Education Foundation had a 95 percent retention rate.”

She adds, “National best practices and our own research at the Colorado Department of Higher Education indicate that student support services [like Pueblo’s use of COSI funds combined with the wholesale marijuana excise tax] are key to a student’s ability to persist and make it to the finish line.”

And that “finish line” is one shared by a community eager to both groom more well-educated citizens and attract industries offering better-paying jobs.

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Colorado

Some parents worry new drug approval could shift States’ attitudes on medicinal cannabis

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Some American parents who for years have used cannabis to treat severe forms of epilepsy in their children are feeling more cautious than celebratory as U.S. regulators near a decision on whether to approve the first drug derived from the marijuana plant.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to issue a decision by the end of the month on the drug Epidiolex, made by GW Pharmaceuticals. It’s a purified form of cannabidiol — a component of cannabis that doesn’t get users high — to treat Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut syndromes in kids. Both forms of epilepsy are rare.

Cannabidiol’s effect on a variety of health conditions is frequently touted, but there is still little evidence to back up advocates’ personal experiences. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has long categorized cannabis as a Schedule I drug, a category with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” That strictly limits research on potential medical uses for cannabis or the chemicals in it, including cannabidiol, or CBD.

But for years, parents desperate to find anything to help their children have turned to the marijuana-based products made legal by a growing number of states.

Meagan Patrick is among the parents using CBD to treat symptoms in their children. She moved from Maine to Colorado in 2014 so she could legally get CBD for her now-5-year-old daughter, Addelyn, who was born with a brain malformation that causes seizures.

“My child was dying, and we needed to do something,” Patrick said.

As for the potential approval of a pharmaceutical based on CBD, she said fear is her first reaction.

“I want to make sure that her right to continue using what works for her is protected, first and foremost. That’s my job as her mom,” Patrick said.

Advocates like Patrick became particularly concerned when GW Pharmaceuticals’ U.S. commercial business, Greenwich Biosciences, began quietly lobbying to change states’ legal definition of marijuana, beginning in 2017 with proposals in Nebraska and South Dakota.

Some worried the company’s attempt to ensure its product could be legally prescribed and sold by pharmacies would have a side effect: curtailing medical marijuana programs already operating in more than two dozen states.

The proposals generally sought to remove CBD from states’ legal definition of marijuana, allowing it to be prescribed by doctors and supplied by pharmacies. But the change only applies to products that have FDA approval.

Neither Nebraska nor South Dakota allows medical use of marijuana, and activists accused the company of trying to shut down future access to products containing cannabidiol but lacking FDA approval.

Britain-based GW Pharmaceuticals never intended for the changes to affect other marijuana products, but they are necessary to allow Epidiolex to be sold in pharmacies if approved, spokesman Stephen Schultz said.

He would not discuss other places where the company will seek changes to state law. The Associated Press confirmed that lobbyists representing Greenwich Biosciences backed legislation in California and Colorado this year.

“As a company, we understand there’s a significant business building up,” Schultz said. “All we want to do is make sure our product is accessible.”

Industry lobbyists in those states said they take company officials at their word, but they still insisted on protective language ensuring that recreational or medical marijuana, cannabidiol, hemp and other products derived from cannabis plants won’t be affected by the changes sought by GW Pharmaceuticals.

Patrick Goggin, an attorney who focuses on industrial hemp issues in California, said the company would run into trouble if it tried to “lock up access” to marijuana-derived products beyond FDA-approved drugs.

“People need to have options and choices,” he said. “That’s the battle here.”

Legal experts say the changes are logical. Some states’ laws specifically prohibit any product derived from the marijuana plant from being sold in pharmacies. The FDA has approved synthetic versions of another cannabis ingredient for medical purposes but has never approved marijuana or hemp for any medical use.

A panel of FDA advisers in April unanimously recommended the agency approve Epidiolex for the treatment of severe seizures in children with epilepsy, conditions that are otherwise difficult to treat. It’s not clear why CBD reduces seizures in some patients, but the panel based its recommendation on three studies showing significant reduction in children with two forms of epilepsy.

Denver-based attorney Christian Sederberg, who worked on the GW Pharmaceuticals-backed legislation in Colorado on behalf of the marijuana industry, said all forms of marijuana can exist together.

“The future of the industry is showing itself here,” Sederberg said. “There’s going to be the pharmaceutical lane, the nutraceutical (food-as-medicine) lane, the adult-use lane. This shows how that’s all coming together.”

Alex and Jenny Inman said they won’t switch to Epidiolex if it becomes available, though their son Lukas has Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.

Alex, an information technology professional, and Jenny, a preschool teacher, said it took some at-home experimentation to find the right combination of doctor-prescribed medication, CBD and THC — the component that gives marijuana users a high — that seemed to help Lukas with his seizures.

“What makes me a little bit nervous about this is that there’s sort of a psyche amongst patients that, ‘Here’s this pill, and this pill will solve things,’ right? It works differently for different people,” Alex Inman said.

The Inmans moved from Maryland to Colorado in 2015 after doctors recommended a second brain surgery for Lukas’ seizures. The couple and other parents and advocates for CBD said children respond differently to a variety of strains.

The Realm of Caring Foundation, an organization co-founded by Paige Figi, whose daughter Charlotte’s name is attached to the CBD oil Charlotte’s Web, said it maintains a registry of about 46,000 people worldwide who use CBD.

For Heather Jackson, who said her son Zaki, now 15, benefited from CBD and who co-founded the foundation, Epidiolex’s approval means insurers will begin paying for treatment with a cannabis-derived product.

“That might be a nice option for some families who, you know, really want to receive a prescription who are going to only listen to the person in the white coat,” Jackson said.

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News

Colorado to toughen car pollution rules

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Colorado’s governor on Tuesday ordered his state to adopt vehicle pollution rules enforced in California, joining other states in resisting the Trump administration’s plans to ease emission standards.

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper told state regulators to begin writing rules that incorporate California’s low-emission standards with a goal of putting them in place by the end of the year.

Hickenlooper said the strict standards are important to Colorado, citing climate change and noting the state’s elevation makes pollution worse.

“Our communities, farms and wilderness areas are susceptible to air pollution and a changing climate,” his order said. “It’s critical for Coloradans’ health and Colorado’s future that we meet these challenges head-on.”

Hickenlooper’s order came about three months after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it would not implement stricter emissions rules adopted by the Obama administration. Those rules would have started with the 2022 model year.

California has a waiver under federal Clean Air Act allowing it to impose tougher standards than the U.S. rules. Currently, California’s standards are the same as the federal standards. But if the Trump administration foregoes the stricter Obama-era rules, California could still impose them or others.

The law allows other states to apply California’s standards. Colorado would be the 13th state, excluding California, to do so, said Luke Tonachel, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s clean vehicles project. The District of Columbia has also adopted the rules.

The states that currently apply California’s rules are Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

“Colorado is recognizing along with other states that the federal rollback is both unjustified and harmful, so the governor is joining others in protecting his state’s citizens,” Tonachel said.

The Colorado Automobile Dealers Association said California standards might not be a good fit for Colorado because a higher percentage of Coloradans buys pickups, SUVS, vans and all-wheel-drive vehicles, which burn more gas.

“We’re disappointed that the state of Colorado, the governor, or regulatory board or anybody else would cede air quality control regulation to an out-of-state, unelected board in Sacramento (California),” said Tim Jackson, president of the association.

The Obama rules would have required the nationwide fleet of new vehicles to get 36 miles per gallon (15 kilometers per liter) in real-world driving by 2025. That’s about 10 mpg (4 kilometers per liter) over the existing standard.

The EPA announced in April it would scrap the Obama-era rules, questioning whether they were technically feasible and citing concerns about how much they would add to the cost of vehicles. The EPA said it would come up with different rules.

California and 16 other states sued the Trump administration over the plan to drop the tougher rules. All the states that joined the lawsuit have Democratic attorneys general. Colorado, which has a Republican attorney general, did not join.

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Mass uncertainty – White House unclear how it plans to reunite separated children

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Trump administration officials say they have no clear plan yet on how to reunite the thousands of children separated from their families at the border since the implementation of a zero-tolerance policy in which anyone caught entering the U.S. illegally is criminally prosecuted.

“This policy is relatively new,” said Steven Wagner, an acting assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services “We’re still working through the experience of reunifying kids with their parents after adjudication.”

Federal officials say there are some methods parents can use to try to find their children: hotlines to call and an email address for those seeking information. But advocates say it’s not that simple.

In a courtroom near the Rio Grande, lawyer Efren Olivares and his team with the Texas Civil Rights Project frantically scribble down children’s names, birthdates and other details from handcuffed men and women waiting for court to begin. There are sometimes 80 of them in the same hearing.

The Texas Civil Rights Project works to document the separations in the hopes of helping them reunite with the children.

They have one hour to collect as much information as they can before the hearing begins. The immigrants plead guilty to illegally entering the U.S., and they are typically sent either to jail or directly to an immigration detention center. At this point, lawyers with the civil rights group often lose access to the detainees.

“If we don’t get that information, then there’s no way of knowing that child was separated,” Olivares said. “No one else but the government will know that the separation happened if we don’t document it there.”

Olivares has documented more than 300 cases of adults who have been separated from a child. Most are parents, but some are older siblings, aunts, uncles or grandparents. Some are illiterate and don’t know how to spell the children’s names.

More than 2,000 minors have been separated from their families since early May. The children are put into the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services with the aim of keeping them as close to their parents as possible and reuniting the family after the case goes through the courts, said Wagner.

But it’s not clear that’s working.

According to Olivares, the agency is generally “very willing to help,” often helping to find a child even if there’s a misspelling in the group’s records. But if a child has been transferred out of a government shelter — including if the child has been deported — agency representatives won’t give any information.

“Sometimes the parent gives us contact information for a relative,” Olivares said. “If they have the phone number right and the phone number is working … we call that number and sometimes we’re able to locate that relative and ask them what they know.”

In May, the Department of Justice adopted the zero-tolerance policy in which anyone caught entering the U.S. illegally is criminally prosecuted. Children can’t be jailed with their parents. Instead, after the adult is charged, children are held briefly by Homeland Security officials before being transferred to Health and Human Services, which operates more than 100 shelters for minors in 17 states.

The department has set up new facilities to manage the influx of children, and Wagner said they were prepared to expand as more children come into custody.

The children are classified as unaccompanied minors, a legal term generally used for children who cross the border alone and have a possible sponsor in the U.S. willing to care for them. Most of the more than 10,000 children in shelters under HHS care came to the U.S. alone and are waiting to be placed with family members living in the U.S.

But these children are different — they arrived with their families.

“They should just give the kids back to their parents. This isn’t difficult,” said Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Gelernt represents a Brazilian asylum seeker in a closely watched lawsuit that seeks a nationwide halt to family separation. The woman, identified as Mrs. C in court documents, was split from her son for nearly a year after entering the country illegally in August near Santa Teresa, New Mexico.

On Tuesday, Olivares’ team had seven people left to interview with five minutes left. They took down just the names, dates of birth, and countries of origin of the children.

“One woman (said), ‘What about me, what about me?'” Olivares said a few hours later. “She wanted to give us information because she realized what we were trying to do.”

___

Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat contributed to this report.

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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