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The planet’s mentor in legal weed: A look at Colorado

Dozens of politicians and other groups spanning the globe are looking for guidance from Denver and Colorado officials, who set the rules for the legalized marijuana industry

October 25, 2016

Since Jan. 1, 2014, Colorado has served as a laboratory of democracy.

Colorado’s government was the first on Earth to allow legal sales of marijuana to adults for recreational use, and plenty of eyes from outside its borders have closely observed this experiment unfold.

“The world is watching,” said Ashley Kilroy, Denver’s executive director of marijuana policy, “and we in Denver are going to get it right.”

As the state and its capital city craft complicated, yet fluid, regulations and navigate this uncharted territory, the world is visiting. From New Jersey to New Zealand, Florida to France, Portland to Puerto Rico, top-level officials from around the globe have traveled to Colorado to get a firsthand glimpse at the first place to open pot shops to all comers.

“My biggest takeaway was it definitely can be done,” said Pernille Skipper, a Danish politician who visited the state with other members of Denmark’s Parliament for a visit with Denver marijuana officials in 2014.

Skipper referenced how Denmark is trying to grapple with issues such as crime and drug trade in the commune of Christiania and the broader move of legalization.

“Colorado has been an example that, well, it can actually be done, and it can be organized and it can be done quite well, and it could be quite controlled,” she said.

Since 2014, national trade groups and government representatives from more than 60 cities, states, territories and countries had formal meetings with Denver and Colorado’s marijuana brass, according to lists provided by city and state officials. The majority of those meetings have occurred in 2016, which comes as no surprise since several states have marijuana legalization on their November ballots.

“One of the things the mayor has always emphasized has been the importance of cities sharing ideas,” Kilroy said. “ … We believe that we have the most robust regulatory system around marijuana in the world. (The U.S. government) will allow this experiment to continue as long as the jurisdictions that are implementing it have robust rules, strict regulation and robust enforcement.”

In addition to the official meetings, city and state representatives receive several queries daily from out of state; Colorado leaders travel to various states for meetings, and nearly 100 cities, states and countries were represented at a two-day intensive conference last year in Denver on marijuana regulations.

This year’s Denver Marijuana Management Symposium, which runs Thursday-Friday and is preceded by a one-day sustainability conference, should attract a similar demographic, officials said.

Kilroy and other key leaders from Denver and the state of Colorado have settled into their roles as de facto mentors for the global marijuana industry, unraveling the ins and outs of complicated regulations, detailing needs for cross-agency collaboration, dispelling myths, bursting bubbles and sharing potential pitfalls.

“People’s perceptions from agenda-driven reports and agenda-driven testimony outside (Colorado) make them either think this is a paradise or hell right now,” said Andrew Freedman, director of marijuana coordination for the state of Colorado.

In recent months, city and state officials have fielded a greater number of calls and increasingly complex queries as more states implement cannabis regulations and several others are voting on marijuana measures this fall.

“The interest is definitely peaking right now,” Freedman said.

The game could change significantly, however, if California votes to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

“I think whatever efficiencies are gained on the California side and whatever regulatory changes there are on the California side, that there’ll be lobbying efforts to make those same changes here,” Freedman said. “And it won’t go the way that as Colorado goes, so goes California.

“I think they’ll look to Colorado first, but only for a couple of years.”

Denver’s Kilroy and her colleague Dan Rowland, a city spokesman, believe Colorado will continue to play a prominent role in marijuana policy for years to come.

“I feel like Denver is going to be the hive where a lot of those good (innovations) come out of,” Rowland said, referencing technology and business advancements in the industry. “And we’ll always be first.”

Seeing it for themselves

Just last week, a delegation of New Jersey lawmakers ventured to Colorado, chatted with Freedman and saw the inner-workings of marijuana businesses, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which sent a reporter to cover the visit.

The “fact-finding mission” by a group of three New Jersey Republicans and five Democrats came as others in the state are weighing a move to legalize adult use of cannabis in 2018, once Gov. Chris Christie, who has been a staunch opponent of recreational marijuana, leaves office, according to theInquirer:

Many said they were impressed with Colorado’s $1 billion-a-year marijuana industry and called the Mile High City’s dispensaries – where an ounce of marijuana can be purchased for $100 to $250 – “discreet,” “spotless,” and “secure.”

“I came because I’m very serious in getting this done,” New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said Monday, shortly before he toured a dispensary for the first time. “But we want to do it right in New Jersey. We want to learn from the mistakes Colorado made.”

Sweeney said he was “very confident that a new law will be passed in 2018.”

Sweeney previously was undecided on recreational legalization, according to the report.

For others, the specter of marijuana legalization is more imminent.

Puerto Rico is on a fast track to establishing a medical marijuana industry. When the U.S. territory started drafting its framework in January, the regulations were practically a “copy-paste” of Colorado’s medical laws, said Goodwin Aldarondo, a Puerto Rico-based attorney and president of Puerto Rico Legal Marijuana, an organization with the aim of providing information and education to people interested in the cannabis industry.

But there was a need for more than just words. Aldarondo, in partnership with Denver-based Green Leaf & Associates LLC, spearheaded a trip to Colorado for 45 Puerto Rico professionals — including attorneys, doctors and journalists — to see the industry in operation. Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court approved the trip for credits as part of the territory’s Continuing Legal Education program.

On a mid-September afternoon, some members of the group walked into the Simply Pure dispensary at 2000 W. 32nd Ave. in Denver. The retail visit was another in a line of many firsts for the group, which traveled between Colorado Springs, Denver and Boulder to tour cultivation operations, visit concentrate-manufacturing facilities, dine with industry executives and get in a little sightseeing along the way.

Puerto Rico officials visit Denver
Attorney and president of the group Puerto Rico Legal Marijuana, Goodwin Aldarondo speaks outside Simply Pure’s dispensary in Denver on Sept. 15, 2016, as part of a visit to Colorado to learn more about the state’s legal marijuana industry. (Joe Amon, The Denver Post)

As a Simply Pure budtender rattled through the various cannabis-infused products — beverages, gummies, sexual performance aids — and popped the tops of jars of dried marijuana flower, the visitors snapped pictures on their cell phones, perused the products in the glass cases and peppered the staff with questions.

Aldarondo, who was making his sixth trek to Colorado, said he hoped the educational trip would help fill a significant gap in building a new industry from scratch.

“They have the idea, they have the money, they have the intentions, they want to be in the industry, but they haven’t even seen a plant,” he said.

Members of the group said preconceived notions of a dingy city with drug addicts on the sidewalks and prevalent crime were quickly put to rest. Rafael Andres Rodriguez, a certified public accountant, and Felix Poll, an attorney and entrepreneur, said they were excited and optimistic in applying what they saw in Colorado when they returned home.

“Let’s see if we can replicate it,” Rodriguez said. “There’s a lot of hope for that.”

Aldarondo has advocated for the program as a potential boost for Puerto Rico’s economy.

Managing expectations

While optimism brims, city and state officials are tasked with clearing up misconceptions, providing stories of lessons learned and bringing outsiders down to Earth.

“First of all, everyone is still very focused on tax revenue,” Freedman said. “It takes a long time to get people a sense of scale for tax revenue. I think we’re a much bigger wet blanket about tax revenue.”

Last year, legal marijuana bulked up state coffersby about $135 million. That may be a decent-sized Powerball jackpot, but it’s a drop in the bucket of a$27 billion state budget.Last year, legal marijuana bulked up state coffersby about $135 million. That may be a decent-sized Powerball jackpot, but it’s a drop in the bucket of a$27 billion state budget.
Managing expectations on one end, Freedman also is quick to share cautionary tales and explain that Colorado and others are “very early into the data game.”

Freedman lamented the looseness of the state’s home-grow regulations, which he believes contributed to out-of-state diversion issues and some elements of organized crime. His message to visitors includes notes that there haven’t been dire spikes in public-health safety data, but the state is closely watching data in areas such as emergency room visits and arrests for suspected driving under the influence of drugs.

“It’s important, first of all, that Colorado does get its message out as a neutral arbitrator of data, because it’s unfortunate in the way in which we’ve kind of become this chess piece for other people, defining what’s happening in our state,” he said. “I’m happy to get out and talk about, in a lot of ways, how little Colorado has changed since the legalization of marijuana.”

That’s not the case for some prominent Coloradans, who have taken the mentor role in a different direction. Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, former Gov. Bill Owens and former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb all have spoken against Arizona Proposition 205, a November ballot issue that would legalize recreational marijuana in the state.

Highlighting concerns about law enforcement, teen use and crime, Webb referred to Colorado’s law as a “terrible mistake” in a political ad. Suthers and Thornton Police Department officer Jim Gerhardt, during a September press conference, urged Arizonans to wait on legalization until Colorado’s law is five years into effect, according to a report in the Arizona Capitol Times:

“There’s absolutely no reason to rush into this,” Gerhardt said. He said it’s easy for voters to adopt laws allowing recreational use but “it’s very, very difficult to undo what we’ve done.”

For now, Colorado’s marijuana-legalizing laws remain on the books, so others have viewed it as an opportunity for education.

Wyoming criminalizes the use and possession of marijuana but also has a medical CBD law that allows for the use of extracted cannabis chemicals for epilepsy or seizure disorders.

If those laws change or are expanded to include more legal uses of marijuana, Hank Uhden, a division manager of technical services for the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, wants to be prepared.

He attended last year’s Denver marijuana regulation symposium to get up to speed on ways to address issues such as codes, pesticides and zoning.

“We haven’t been provided that direction legislatively,” he said. “If and when, we can always make contact (with Colorado officials) should we have to proceed in that direction.

“Every year, there’s always somebody that brings forward (some legislation or proposal) in this area.”

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