Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep Westword’s future free.
In 2014, I was tapped by then-Governor John Hickenlooper to oversee the introduction of Colorado’s new cannabis laws. At the time, the task seemed insurmountable, between creating a regulatory program, aligning fees with taxes and budgets, launching public awareness campaigns, and enacting policy corrections. Over time, however, the most important aspect of the job became to be an ambassador for interested observers of the so-called Great Colorado Weed Experiment.
By the time Senator Chuck Schumer’s delegation got through, I had moved on to another job, but his visit was the defining moment that changed the Senator’s views on cannabis legalization. And I have to imagine that it went like almost every other delegation of information I received as Colorado’s cannabis czar, and is an indication of why federal legalization is inevitable.
Most of the visits went like this: in the time it took to drive downtown from Denver International Airport, they’d done about fifteen bad puns and passed the one spot on the freeway where they got cannabis from the licensed producers and distributors in the industrial area.
But the delegations got serious when they toured the first Growth. The sea of green, so meticulously pursued, the millions of dollars in bespoke machines, the obvious mastery of botany, safety and logistics. For those expecting sloppy rows of plants in an aluminum foil-wrapped basement, the impression was that multimillion-dollar farms were keen to meet the highest compliance requirements. It was so often at this point that policymakers from all over the world were digging deep into legalization. These operations would create jobs, promote economic development, and generate significant tax revenues.
Then there would be feedback from the community. For so many residents, legal cannabis was only as present in their daily lives as they wanted it to be. By far the biggest complaint was the smell. But the stores blended into their surroundings, and the opportunity to have a good night away from cannabis remained simple. Of course, the community would point out increasing pain and disadvantages. There were occasional tourist edible freakouts. The strange neighbor who smoked all along. These were more exceptions than the rule, however, and locals would be quick to point out that they had many friends and relatives now in the industry and that legalization had been positive for Colorado overall. According to a recent interview, it was these conversations with local residents who witnessed the legalization firsthand that gave Senator Schumer his “aha” moment.
Andrew Freedman was Colorado’s director of cannabis policy when the state first introduced a recreational pot.
Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education and Regulation
Finally, the visit would end with a review of the data, which, unfortunately, is still thin. Who can tell if a surge in crime is due to legalization rather than an economic downturn caused by a global pandemic? But most Denverites would agree that the data available does not provide a “smoking weapon”. Youth use has remained stable. Most of the top-line health and public safety numbers show no correlation with legalization, let alone causality.
The casual observer is not alone in making this claim. The Cato Institute recently analyzed data from newly legalized states and concluded: “The absence of significant adverse consequences is particularly striking given the sometimes dire predictions of opponents of legalization.” Overall, there is very little evidence of significant changes in public health or safety .
On the return trip to DIA, these delegations would already discuss the solutions that a federalized regulatory system could offer to address the challenges of a system that is only legalized by the state – better research and data, controls to prevent improper marketing, quality controls to help ensure product safety, more resources for proper government surveillance – and dozens of other perks that made them forget the smell of cannabis as they pass the stretch of highway near the industrial area.
I am giving this report on the conversion of policymakers because it illustrates an important fact: legalization is inevitable. Surveys already show that the legalization of cannabis has reached its societal turning point. These visits illustrate how cannabis will also reach its political turning point.
As state-to-state legalization progresses, more Republican and Democratic lawmakers are witnessing the growth of this industry in their own backyards.
By the third year of legalization in Colorado, legalization had gained significant support from both parties (neither of which originally supported the measure) among lawmakers. As more and more federal lawmakers are witnessing what Senator Schumer saw, I have no doubt that this also applies to federal legalization.
Andrew Freedman is the former director of marijuana coordination for the state of Colorado and currently serves as the executive director of the coalition for cannabis policy, education and regulation.
Westword frequently publishes commentaries and essays on topics of interest to the Denver community. The opinions expressed are those of the authors, not Westword. Do you have one that you would like to submit? Send it to [email protected] where you can also comment on this piece.
Keep Westword Free … Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we want to keep it that way. We offer our readers free access to concise coverage of local news, food and culture. Produce stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands with bold reporting, stylish writing, and staff everything from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Feature Writing Award to the Casey Medal for the Deserving Journalism have won. Given that the existence of local journalism amid siege and setbacks has a greater impact on advertising revenue, it is more important than ever for us to raise support for funding our local journalism. You can help by joining our I Support membership program which allows us to continue to cover Denver without paywalls.