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Legal, unlicensed horse racing raises concerns in Colorado

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FORT LUPTON, Colo. — Before the horse races began at Rancho El Caporal, people gathered around a man holding a jug full of rocks and a boot. The jug was to get their attention. The boot was to hold their bets.

It was a warm April day in Fort Lupton, where thousands descended to watch horses race.

With more than a dozen armed security guards, portable toilets, food trucks, an ambulance and plenty of parking, and with the blessing of Weld County commissioners, the annual event felt like many others. It could pass for a concert at the Greeley Stampede.

“The county is happy, the cops are happy, everybody is happy,” said Martin Gutierrez, who owns Rancho El Caporal.

Gutierrez had a permit for the two-day event, just as he’s had each of the past six years.

But after race organizers provide the necessary documents to get a permit, there’s little to no oversight, both from local law enforcement or state officials, something insiders and advocates say paves the way for illegal gambling, mistreatment of horses and a potentially unsafe environment for spectators.

“I have sources who have been dealing with legal horse races,” said Floss Blackburn, of Denkai Animal Sanctuary. “They pump (horses) so full of drugs they’re having heart attacks. They’re a tool; they’re a way for these guys to make money, which is not fair to the animal.”

The only licensed racetrack in Colorado is Arapahoe Park in Aurora. That track is licensed for pari-mutuel betting. It’s also monitored to ensure animal and spectator safety.

Racing horses, though, is perfectly legal all over the state.

Gutierrez knows the rules. In a phone conversation that ended prematurely when he hung up, Gutierrez said there’s no organized betting.

“It’s match races. You can bet through a friend,” Gutierrez said. “We don’t take any commission.”

If he did, it would be illegal gambling. And that’s hard to prove, Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams said. Reams’ easiest recourse against horse races is when the organizers fail to take the basic step of getting an assembly permit from the county.

Gutierrez was in that camp in 2010. He was cited for hosting illegal rodeos and horse races with hundreds in attendance, according to county documents.

Horse races go on throughout the state, Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer said. Fox31 Denver, in an investigation concurrent with The Tribune’s, uncovered similar races in Deer Trail. There, Mayor Kent Vashus is also the registered agent of the Deer Trail Jockey Club, which owns the rodeo grounds where unsanctioned races were held on Easter weekend.

After being questioned about the races, Vashus told Fox31 on video the races wouldn’t be coming back to Deer Trail.

Kirkmeyer said if Weld officials discovered problems with an event they permitted, whether horse racing or any other, they could use that information in future permitting decisions. To date, they’ve had no complaints about Rancho El Caporal.

“We’re obviously aware when there’s a big assembly like that, the propensity for other things to come along is there,” Reams said. “If we have substantial information that something is going on, we’ll look for enforcement. But we can’t just embed someone in all of those and look for crime to occur.”

There are many, smaller races that happen more often, without permits, and with far fewer people. Evidence is available online, where match races are documented and promoted throughout Colorado. Many wouldn’t require a permit because there aren’t enough people attending to trigger the need for a temporary assembly permit.

Because horse racing is legal, and any potential illegal activity would likely be kept off social media, breaking up illegal activity is harder than it looks.

If the house gets a cut, that’s organized, illegal gambling, but without a paper trail, the cash exchange is nearly impossible to track.

County commissioners, who have approved permits for Gutierrez each of the past six years, say the county has a thorough process for handing them out. That process includes comments and recommendations from a variety of departments, including the sheriff.

Reams said deputies have visited the Gutierrez site before and haven’t had issues.

State racing officials, including the enforcement division of the Colorado Department of Revenue, which oversees horse racing, only regulates licensed racing and betting. That includes Arapahoe Park and a handful of off-track betting sites — mostly bars.

“Our authority kind of ends with the licensed industry. State and local law enforcement takes over when there’s a potential of illegal activities,” Ron Kammerzell, director of enforcement for the Colorado Department of Revenue, told Fox31 Denver.

One way or another, there are those who would like to see more oversight of the non-licensed racetracks. Bruce Connally, a veterinarian in Wyoming who serves Colorado Horse Rescue in Longmont, said the licensed venue at Arapahoe has the oversight in place to ensure the proper care of horses. And he says it’s a big difference from what goes on at unregulated tracks.

“It’s not even close,” he said.

Connally has worked with what he calls match-race horses before but never during races.

Although Connally said he’s heard about everything from caffeine to heroin being injected into horses, most of the racing horses he has worked with are healthy. It makes sense, Connally said, as a lame horse isn’t a fast horse.

“Most are right on the edge of being thin,” Connally said. “But Derby horses are quite thin as well. The rest of what I see is mostly these horses are well taken care of.”

Still, Connally said the lack of oversight during these racing events, including a lack of drug testing, makes for a dangerous environment.

“The whole big deal about drug testing, to me, is one, it’s dangerous to the horse, two, dangerous or life-threatening to the jockey, and also, for anybody betting, it’s illegal manipulation of the bets,” Connally said. “I’ve seen horses ran blind, tore themselves up because of illicit drugs. That’s why all of our big races (from Arapahoe to the Kentucky Derby) have such rigid drug testing rules. People are bad, and they want to make a horse run faster than they can for all sorts of reasons.”

The horses at Rancho El Caporal races in Fort Lupton, Gutierrez said, were getting ready for Arapahoe, hence the professional riders, finish line photographer and post-race pictures with owners on the track — all with families enjoying the atmosphere. The veterinarian on site, Michael Scott, runs North Denver Animal Clinic with his wife, Lori Scott, who is a member of the Colorado Horse Racing Commission. Neither returned multiple calls seeking comment.

When The Tribune pulled into the Fort Lupton event, people at the gate handed out magazines and took money — cash only. But they offered a silver lining: “If you bet, you can make it all back,” one said.

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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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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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A crash course in stopping the opioid epidemic

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As the opioid epidemic has swept across the nation, proving it doesn’t discriminate against race, income or age, there has been a conversation visibly absent from schools and among young people about the dangers and addictive qualities painkillers, often prescribed by a doctor, can have.

But that is changing.

Rise Above Colorado, a drug prevention program that emerged from the Colorado Meth Project, now incorporates opioid abuse into its drug prevention campaigns, which have mostly focused on underage marijuana and alcohol consumption. And other organizations, such as Speak Now Colorado, are advising parents on how to talk to their kids about prescription drugs.

“In Colorado, (data shows) the larger rate of misuse in opioids is among 18-25 year olds, so if you want to prevent those outcomes you really need to start early,” said Kavitha Kailasam, the director of community partnership for Rise Above.

She said the move to incorporate education on the dangers of opioids in particular has been data-driven. Surveys conducted by Rise Above found that perceived risk of prescription pain relievers has decreased. In 2013, 66 to 80 percent of teenagers surveyed in southern Colorado said they perceived the risk of prescription opioids as “high.” In 2016 that perception of significant risk dropped to between 51 and 65 percent.

In Schools

Maelah Robinson-Castillo, a Centennial High School student in Pueblo who works with Rise Above, said she doesn’t think a lot of the students she goes to school with are aware of how dangerous opioids can be.

“In a way, it’s kind of accepted,” she said, explaining that those drugs seem safer than others because they come with a doctor’s discretion.

Rise Above has mostly taken this approach to drug prevention: highlighting that a lot of a student’s peers don’t use drugs or consume alcohol. Kailasam said there is a misconception among young adults that use is more common than it is. According to a Healthy Kids Colorado survey from 2015, only 14 percent of those surveyed said they have taken prescription drugs without a prescription. In comparison, 59 percent said they’ve consumed alcohol and 38 percent say they’ve consumed marijuana.

But even with that data, there isn’t much more on the opioid epidemic as it relates to teenagers.

Alexis Ellis, a regional health connector for the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment, said she thinks that’s going to be changing in the future, but where the data gap has presented the biggest problem is in schools where drug prevention programs are largely based on data.

Robinson-Castillo has taken on her own prevention program, called “Centennial on the Rise.” It’s an event where students highlight what they are passionate about. At its core, the high school junior said it’s a way for students to prove that they’re more than the negative stereotypes adults sometimes assign to high school students in relation to drugs and alcohol.

But she’d like to see schools do more.

“Prevention can be looked at in different ways, by just having a youth-adult connection can help. For me, (it’s helpful) going to an adult and them having the resources so I can talk about prescription drugs,” Robinson-Castillo said. “In Pueblo we really don’t have that engagement piece. That’s a place where it’s lacking. We don’t have those mentors in our schools that have the resources if we do come across wanting to get help or wanting to seek guidance. I don’t think our teachers are trained in that.”

With Parents

It’s not just the classroom. Some argue parents should do more to education their children on the dangers of prescription drugs. That can start with educating themselves.

When DeEtte Kozlow took her 17-year-old daughter in to have her wisdom teeth removed last year, the Douglas County mom was sure of one thing: her daughter would not take any kind of opioid for the pain following the procedure.

Kozlow said the nurse insisted on the prescription. She was told her daughter would absolutely need it for the pain and that it is normal to take a painkiller after a molar extraction. That was the problem for Kozlow, who said she eventually took the prescription she felt was being forced on her daughter and then ripped it up.

Her daughter was able to treat the pain just fine the following days with Tylenol and smoothies, Kozlow said. She was confident her daughter wouldn’t need the drugs — and she was right — but she doesn’t think other parents are as educated about the dangers painkillers pose for young people, or that a simple prescription for a normal procedure could be so addictive.

In 2016, Kozlow lost her best friend, Bobby Hawley, to a heroin overdose. He was 39, finishing a master’s degree at Regis University and, as Kozlow put it, a beacon of hope for other addicts he knew. Since his death, Kozlow helped start a non-profit organization in her best friend’s name, appropriately called “Bobby’s House” for his work in the addiction community. Kozlow said Bobby would often let people crash on a mattress at his house when they were going through withdrawal.  

Bobby’s addiction started with painkillers, just like the ones Kozlow’s daughter would have taken after the wisdom teeth surgery.

For the previous decade he struggled with addiction, spending time in and out of rehab. His addiction was something Kozlow said she and the people close to him didn’t talk about a lot. But now she wishes that more people would talk about opioid addiction. It’s why she was so adamant about her daughter not taking any painkillers.

Kozlow said if other parents knew what a simple prescription could lead to, maybe they’d rip them up too.

“Parents can help stop this epidemic,” Kozlow said plainly. She describes the epidemic as an oil spill, and that to keep it from spreading it has to start with kids.

Kozlow said she doesn’t think parents are aware of the problem or that taking a prescription could eventually lead to addiction down the road, as it did for Bobby. Most parents probably have some type of opioid in their medicine cabinet, and then when it comes to their kids being prescribed some type of painkiller, parents don’t know what they’re taking.

Speak Now’s guide for parents — which Kozlow said is easy to follow and reference — is a start. It breaks down what opioids are, what their medical names are, what forms they take and why they’re addictive. The organization’s information paired with Rise Above’s alternative highlight has become a sort of two-pronged approach.

“We need to start paying attention,” she said. “We have to quit taking a pill for everything and cope.”

Kozlow can rattle off statistics about the opioid epidemic — that it’s surpassing the AIDS epidemic, that more than 100 people in the U.S. die from overdose each day — and has stories, too. Friends of Bobby’s who have relapsed have been admitted to the hospital only to be released with little help with recovery.

And there’s a lot to be done to address the epidemic, she said. But it could get a lot better with parents asking questions and educating kids even younger. The majority of addicts say they started using as teenagers.

That’s a statistic that has Kozlow convinced the epidemic can be stopped “from the bottom up.”

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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