Mike Elliott, the former executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group. (Denver Post file)

Colorado pot lobby loud, clear on regulations, as government listens

Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment surprised the marijuana industry in October by proposing a ban on candy, brownies and other edibles and drinks infused with cannabis.

Edibles accounted for a surprising 45 percent of marijuana sales and a majority of the regulatory headaches in the state’s first year of legal recreational pot. Within hours, the growing rapid-response marijuana lobby swooped in and beat back the proposed ban.

“For the year 2014, edibles has been the most difficult issue for the industry,” said Michael Elliott, executive director of the powerful Colorado lobbying outfit Marijuana Industry Group. “And largely we’ve solved it.”

With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, it’s not surprising that the cannabis lobbying industry is growing almost as fast as the plants.

Nine years ago, it wasn’t that way, although Colorado voters had passed medical marijuana in 2000. Back then Brian Vicente of Sensible Colorado and Mason Tvert of Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation were the most distinct voices on the issue to legalize and regulate marijuana.

“For the first few years in Colorado, people would refer to me as ‘The Marijuana Guy,’ ” said Tvert, now spokesman for the national Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates for legalization and fair regulation in other states. “And now you go to a meeting and there are dozens of marijuana guys and gals.”

Tvert’s initial campaign was to show marijuana was safer than alcohol and shouldn’t be held to a higher standard of regulation or prosecution. In the Colorado Capitol, lobbyists for pot now match those for the much older, better-financed alcohol industry.

The pot industry directly employed 26 lobbyists who were collectively paid about $331,000 during the past legislative session, according to state reports.

An additional 34 lobbyists were employed by groups that had a stake in the issue, such as local governments, law enforcement, drug treatment facilities and schools.

By comparison, in the last session, a failed bill would have allowed local governments to extend closing times for alcohol sales beyond 2 a.m. There were 57 lobbyists supporting, opposing or monitoring the bill, according to state records.

In 2013, when a bill proposed allowing grocery stores to sell full-strength beer, there were 40 lobbyists working on the issue, which eventually failed.

Spending on alcohol lobbying is difficult to calculate in Colorado, because it overlaps with many other issues a lobbyist might be paid for, according to the secretary of state’s office. But nationally in 2014, the beer, wine and liquor industry spent at least $18.3 million on 231 lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The public-interest site doesn’t calculate the pot industry’s overall lobbying efforts but notes that the Marijuana Policy Project spent more than $1 million on lobbying nationwide in 2013, and the pro-pot Drug Policy Alliance spent an additional $520,000.

Creating pot credit union

Addressing edibles is far from the only regulatory tangle for the growing industry. In November, the state issued a charter to the first credit union to serve marijuana businesses, the governor’s office said the state had gone to “the end of the line” in what it could do to provide banking for a booming new industry.

Lobbyists for the state’s pot industry helped push through a bill to create a state credit union for their clients during just seven days at the end of the last legislative session. Big banks won’t do business with pot growers, sellers and buyers, because marijuana still violates federal law.

Because the credit union still needs the blessing of federal regulators, backers can only hope to have the political muscle in Washington they enjoy in Colorado.

“I think the good players, the people who are concerned about the state and seeing a big industry run the right way, who have a sincere concern about public safety, we’ve certainly found that at the end of the day people are listening,” said Josh Hanfling, a proposed board member for the credit union and a well-connected lobbyist for marijuana seller Invita Wellness.

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, said the pro-pot lobby hasn’t gotten everything it wants, but it’s taken advantage of the opportunity to provide valuable information about how the industry works and the affects and costs of proposed rules.

“I think we’re doing it right,” Steadman said. “I think the industry has the right amount of voice, and the legislature is taking a thoughtful approach to what’s in the best interest of the industry and what’s in the best interest of the state.”

Colorado voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2012 to legalize recreational marijuana. In the 2013 legislative session there were 21 bills.

After sales began Jan. 1, lawmakers considered 30 separate pieces of pot-related legislation, tackling issues from banking to regulating edibles to limiting civil liability in marijuana agritourism and using pot revenue to fix flood-damaged schools.

Lawmakers will wrangle with just as many issues in this session, including whether medical marijuana licenses should be taxed or regulated differently, how many plants caregivers can grow, fire safety procedures where pot is grown under lamps indoors and various attempts to snag a share of tax revenue.

Elliott said the amount of legislation reflects the aspects of the industry that either didn’t exist before or weren’t regulated in Colorado.

Elliott’s organization was formed by dispensaries in 2010 to help guide the rules that govern them.

“Before you had law enforcement controlling the discussions, and their only goal was to the do away with the industry,” he said. “No industry can survive like that.”

The dispensaries stepped up after the federal government said it wouldn’t crack down on them if they could demonstrate they were following all state laws. At the time, hardly any state laws existed, which could have proven problematic for the dispensaries, Elliott said.

As a result, the state excluded felons from gaining pot business licenses and required background checks and financial disclosures, among other measures.

Most bills have gotten bipartisan support. While it’s perceived that Democrats favor the industry and Republicans resist, Elliott said plenty of Republicans want to see the industry operated the right way.

“The principles of the Republican Party are very much in line with this movement,” Elliott said. “When you hear the Republicans talk, it’s ‘Get the federal government out of our way, states rights, individual freedom, small business.’ Those are the purported principles of the Republican Party, and all that is right in line with what we’re doing here.”

A Pew Research poll last year indicated 49 percent of Democrats nationwide support marijuana legalization, compared with 32 percent of Republicans.

Diverse lobby

The pot lobby might represent a broader diversity of interests and backgrounds than any another other industry in the Capitol.

Hanfling, for example, is one of Colorado’s best-connected lobbyists. When Hickenlooper was Denver’s mayor, Hanfling was his director of legislative services and liaison to the City Council.

Hanfling’s other lobbying clients include the city of Glendale, Walmart, Land Rover, CenturyLink and the Colorado Outdoor Advertising Association.

“They come from everywhere,” said Amanda Reiman, manager of marijuana law and policy for the national Drug Policy Alliance.

“Some come from backgrounds working on the environment, medicinal, social justice, ACLU and criminal justice.

“Then you have a set who are interested in being a part of a burgeoning issue, just like the people who got into the tech boom.”

Reiman holds the influential position of identifying and forming strategy around policies on pot that are argued in political circles across the country. She has a background in social work.

The dissertation for her doctorate from the University of California dealt with how medical marijuana dispensaries provide health services. “I thought if I did the research and proved the question, policy would follow,” she said. “I was naive.”

The experience sparked her into advocacy around data.

“The key role of lobbyists in the marijuana industry is as educators, (or) translators,” she said. “It’s a new thing in a lot of places, and there’s definitely a need for translation.

“It’s not always about getting what you want, but it’s about helping people understand what’s at stake and broader implications.”

Gina Carbone, a former Washington, D.C., lobbyist and a founding member of Smart Colorado, said her group doesn’t take a stand for or against legalization but works on issues related to the health and safety of youths in light of legal marijuana. Smart Colorado has pushed the issue of making edibles more distinct to prevent accidental ingestion.

Smart Colorado’s proponents often are parents and community leaders who take time off from work to go to the statehouse to face off against experienced, well-paid advocates on the other side, she said.

“They’re powerful, and they can put in a lot of money. We’re seeing that,” Carbone said of the professional pot lobbyists she faces. “Does that stand up to parents concerned about pot shops going in in their neighborhood?”

Future fights

Sam Kamin, a law professor and director of the Constitutional Rights and Remedies Program at the University of Denver, isn’t at all surprised by the manpower and lobbying around pot.

Big industries with a lot of money to gain or lose always field lobbyists. With Colorado as one of the first states to wade into regulating marijuana, those interested in the outcome come from outside the state’s borders, as well.

Other states that legalize marijuana will look to Colorado for their regulatory boilerplate, Kamin said.

“The stakes are high, and Colorado is the first place in the country figuring out how to do this,” he said. “Being on the forefront nationally has a lot of the focus here.”

In the session that begins Jan. 7, legislators will decide how to use the revenue that’s flowing in. Lawmakers will have to decide whether to r efund an estimated $30 million to taxpayers, as would be required by the state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or invest it in programs or construction.

A working group made up of industry officials and those concerned about marijuana edibles adjourned last month without any consensus about potential regulations to make them distinguishable from candy, cookies or drinks that aren’t laced with pot.

That political football is punted back to the legislature now.

Steadman and lobbyists also expect changes to requirements for medical marijuana licenses, because the original rules have a sunset

Hanfling said the stigma of marijuana has fallen away in Colorado in the past few years.

“People are finding out that the people who are running the shops and working in the grow operations are their neighbors, who, like people in any business, want to see it succeed,” he said. “Some of the nonprofits I work with, a year ago, they would have never wanted to get pot money. That’s changing.

“I hope five years from now we’re talking about pot just like we’d talk about any other business.”

Joey Bunch: 303-954-1174 or jbunch@denverpost.com

This story was first published on DenverPost.com