Young marijuana plants sit under grow lamps at the Pioneer Production and Processing marijuana growing facility in Arlington, Wash., on Jan. 13, 2015. (Elaine Thompson, Associated Press file)

Lawmakers eager to talk pot at national conference

On marijuana legalization: "Better to get out in front of it, to find your policy and educate people about the policy you created, rather than having something foisted on you," says Washington state Sen. Ann Rivers

SEATTLE — To start the discussion, the moderator asked a room full of lawmakers from across the country to raise green index cards if their state was considering a measure to legalize marijuana.

The hands shot into the air and the color said it all. “A lot of green in the room,” the moderator observed. “A lot of green.”

More than possibly any single forum, the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures annual meeting this week in Seattle is showcasing the nation’s robust discussion right now on legalizing marijuana.

Colorado and Washington lawmakers sat in the spotlight Wednesday as policy-makers packed a huge room to seek guidance from the two states with at least a year of experience in legal pot sales.

But for every lesson learned, other major questions arose — particularly when it came to public consumption and policing drugged drivers.

And another factor consistently dominated the conversation: the role of the federal government and whether it will crackdown on the marijuana legalization push at the state level.

“I think the fact of the matter is there is too much momentum … to really shut anything down significantly,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Dan Pabon, a Denver Democrat, at a session dubbed “Legalizing Marijuana: Potholes and Possibilities.”

A number of lawmakers from various states said they wanted the federal government to give better guidance while others pointed to the 2016 presidential election as a pivotal moment for legal pot.

“Whoever becomes president is going to have a lot to say about how the DEA enforces and doesn’t enforce, so I think this becomes a huge presidential issue,” said Florida state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, a Tallahassee Democrat who sponsored legislation to legalize pot.

In roughly 20 states this year, lawmakers proposed bills to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and next year a handful of states are expected to put the question to voters on the ballot.

Four states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana consumption for adults and another 19 permit medicinal marijuana use, according to NCSL, a bipartisan organization that tracks state policies.

“It’s something that is starting to snowball,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization organization lobbying policy-makers at the conference.

In Colorado and Washington, voter initiatives legalized marijuana, rather than lawmakers. Washington state Sen. Ann Rivers, the Republican Senate whip, urged other legislators to get ahead on the issue and not leave it to a referendum. “Better to get out in front of it, to find your policy and educate people about the policy you created, rather than having something foisted on you,” she said.

Looking back, Rivers and Pabon suggested that other states considering medical marijuana address recreational pot at the same time. “If I had to do it all over again, we would just have one system” for regulating marijuana, Pabon said, saying it would still require different tax structures but relieve numerous complications.

The emerging issue in both states, lawmakers told the crowd, is how to enforce bans on the public consumption of marijuana.

A legislative effort is expected next year in Colorado to permit establishments where people can legally use marijuana. It comes as Denver activists push a ballot campaign to allow marijuana consumption in bars and clubs that only allow people over 21.

But earlier this year in Washington, lawmakers went the opposite direction to outlaw pot clubs.

Douglas County state Rep. Polly Lawrence, another member of the NCSL panel, said she wants a crackdown on public consumption in Colorado.

“It is absolutely sending the wrong message to people who are thinking about moving a business to Colorado, for kids who are walking down the street and it’s suddenly not a prohibited substance,” said Lawrence, the assistant House GOP leader. “We really need to get a handle on this. … Why are we not enforcing open consumption laws in Colorado?”

Seattle Democratic Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles cautioned the other lawmakers against following Washington’s path, saying it could have unintended consequences. “I think having a club where people can go — with state regulations — is a much better approach,” she said.

John Frank: 303-954-2409, jfrank@denverpost.com or twitter.com/ByJohnFrank

This story was first published on DenverPost.com