Dozens of states and countries have made official visits to Denver and Colorado to learn about the legal marijuana industry. Pictured: Jorge Cruz of Puerto Rico taking a whiff of the different types of marijuana on the counter at Simply Pure's dispensary in Denver as part of a visit to Colorado to learn more about the state's legal marijuana industry. September 15, 2016 in Denver, CO. (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post)

How Colorado became the planet’s top mentor in legalizing and regulating cannabis

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

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 came to 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 the Inquirer:

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 coffers by 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.”


Denver and Colorado as mentors

Below is a list of some of the out-of-state entities that have met with city and county of Denver and state of Colorado marijuana officials since 2014, the year recreational marijuana sales began in the state.
x-Meetings with the state of Colorado
y-Entity met separately with both Denver and Colorado officials
z-Visits made out of state by Andrew Freedman, Colorado’s director of marijuana coordination

UNITED STATES

ALASKA

x-Alaska government representatives

ARIZONA

Arizona State University Morrison Institute for Public Policy
Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law
Valley Leadership (Phoenix)

ARKANSAS

Arkansas law enforcement training

CALIFORNIA

Accela Engage (San Ramon, Calif.)
z-California (Freedman visited Assembly member Adrin Nazarian)
California Conference of Environmental Health Directors
Communication Leadership Exchange (Aliso Viejo, Calif.)
IPMA-HR California chapter
Los Angeles County appointees and department heads
x-Los Angeles County CEO Sachi Hamai and representatives
National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (Los Angeles)
San Diego Sheriff’s Department
San Mateo County

FLORIDA

Florida Cannabis Action Network
Florida Department of Health
Hillsborough County, Fla.
Orlando, Fla., presentation
Tampa Chamber of Commerce

ILLINOIS

Local governments from Illinois/Miller Design Works
University of Illinois grad student Taryn Harm

IOWA

Dale Woolery, Iowa Governor’s Office

MAINE

x-Maine Department of Labor

MARYLAND

Society of Fire Protection Engineers (Gaithersburg, Mary.)

MASSACHUSETTS

Delegation of Massachusetts State Senators
Harvard University Kennedy School of Government
z-Massachusetts Rep. Jonathan Hecht, Sen. Jason Lewis

NEVADA

Councilwoman Debra March of Henderson, Nev.
Local governments from Nevada/Miller Design Works
y-Nevada legislative delegation
x-Nevada Sen. Patricia Farley
Reno Chief of Police

NEW JERSEY

x-New Jersey state legislators

NEW YORK

Chris Hawkins, chief of staff for New York City Department of Environmental Protection
International Risk Management Society
New York state office of economic development

OHIO

x-Ohio Rep. Dan Ramos
x-Ohio representatives from governor’s office

OREGON

x-Oregon state legislators

RHODE ISLAND

z-Rhode Island (Freedman visited state legislators, governor’s office members and various state departments)

SOUTH DAKOTA

State officials presentation

TEXAS

Meeting Planners International (Dallas)
x-Texas Sen. Jose Menendez

UTAH

Utah Sheriff’s Association Annual Conference

VERMONT

z-Vermont House Committee on Judiciary

VIRGINIA

International Public Administration Association (Alexandria, Va.)
National Recreation and Parks Association (Ashburn, Va.)

WASHINGTON

Brad Crelia, marijuana research advisor for the city of Spokane, Wash.
Law Seminars International (Seattle)

WASHINGTON, D.C.

American Public Health Association annual meeting (Washington, D.C.)
D.C. government appointees and department heads
x-Washington, D.C. Mayor’s Office and D.C. Department of Health

PUERTO RICO

Puerto Rico Legal Marijuana / Green Leaf & Associates

U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS

Delegation of the U.S. Virgin Islands

AUSTRALIA

x-Australian Embassy representatives

CANADA

Association of Municipalities of Ontario Annual Conference
Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse
x-Canadian Task Force delegation
Mayor of Pinawa, Manitoba, and CH2M
Edmonton Police
Edmonton, AB and Drug Policy Alliance
Quebec Provincial Police

DENMARK

Danish Parliament delegation

FRANCE

French National Institute for Advanced Studies in Security and Justice
French Police Attache

GERMANY

German Federal Ministry and German National Police

JAMAICA

CGI / Ministers of Jamaican government and Mayor of Kingston
y-Jamaica Cannabis Licensing Authority

THE NETHERLANDS

Yvette Van Groenigen, marijuana policy adviser to the mayor of Amsterdam

NEW ZEALAND

x-New Zealand Parliament member Gareth Hughes

PORTUGAL

European Monitoring Centre for Drugs & Drug Addiction (Lisbon, Portugal)

UNITED KINGDOM

British Consulate

Sources: City and county of Denver, state of Colorado