Andrew Freedman, Colorado director of marijuana coordination, talks on The Cannabist Show in March 2015. (Cannabist file)

Colorado’s marijuana czar and fellow top regulator make leap into consulting

Update (Jan. 9, 2017): This post has been updated to reflect that the resignation of Lewis Koski, a senior director of enforcement for the Colorado Department of Revenue, became effective on Monday, Jan. 9.

Colorado’s marijuana czar and one of its top enforcement chiefs are jumping to the private sector to advise local and state governments hashing out cannabis regulations.

Andrew Freedman, the state’s director of marijuana coordination, Lewis Koski, Colorado Department of Revenue deputy senior director of enforcement, and John Hudak, drug policy expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, formed Freedman & Koski LLC.

Freedman’s planned transition from his Colorado government position and the firm’s launch were announced Thursday afternoon.

In an interview with The Cannabist, Freedman said his departure aligned with this year’s planned June 30 sun-setting of the Office of Marijuana Coordination, which was outlined in Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget proposal released in November.

“Essential coordinating roles should not be a long-term position,” Freedman said.

The responsibilities previously handled by Freedman will shift to Mark Bolton, the governor’s senior deputy legal counsel. Freedman will stay on in an advisory capacity to assist with the transition, state officials said.

“I have a very strong feeling that most of the work is now long-term work that departments do already own, and so remaining as a central coordinating figure I don’t think would have aided in good government,” Freedman said.

While Freedman, 33, will make the leap first to build the new consulting firm as a proof of concept, Koski will stay on with the Department of Revenue in the interim. In maintaining that role, Koski will not handle any duties related to marijuana, Freedman said.

On Monday, just days after Freedman made his announcement about the consulting firm, the Colorado Department of Revenue announced that Koski resigned from the agency, effective immediately. Koski had worked for the state for 12 years.

Colorado’s young legal marijuana industry has had its fair share of revolving-door activities.

Barely three months after Colorado adult-use marijuana sales began in 2014, at least three high-profile state regulators had moved on to positions consulting for the cannabis industry. One of those three, Laura Harris, this week took on the role of heading the Colorado Cannabis Chamber of Commerce.

Such public-to-private moves are not uncommon — and typically don’t present a conflict of interest — but they do pose public policy concerns, ethics experts have told The Denver Post:

“It’s not so much a question of ethics, but it is a question of public policy,” said Luis Toro, the director of the watchdog group Colorado Ethics Watch. “Sometimes agencies can become ineffective if it’s more lucrative for employees to go work for private industry.”

Freedman said his new venture will be assisting government bodies in implementing regulations — decisions that have wide-reaching effects in the areas of public health and public safety. The firm does not have plans to work with businesses, notably Colorado marijuana licensees, he said.

Freedman describes himself, Koski and Hudak as cannabis “agnostics,” people who have not staked a position on either side of the legalization debate.

“We would really like to maintain that,” he said. “You won’t see this firm advocating for legalization in other states. We’re really focused on being a good-government firm.”

Freedman, a Colorado native, graduated from Tufts University and Harvard Law School and landed a role as Colorado Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia’s chief of staff in 2011.

In 2014, Gov. John Hickenlooper hired Freedman to serve as the state’s director of marijuana coordination. In that role, Freedman was tasked with coordinating efforts in something that had never been done before — legalizing the adult-use sales of cannabis while promoting public health and safety and discouraging teen use.

Last month, the Boston Globe reported that Freedman was viewed as a contender for a Massachusetts regulatory post overseeing the new recreational marijuana industry, “or advise that group as a paid consultant.”

In the governor’s announcement of Freedman’s departure, the outgoing marijuana czar was credited with rallying state resources and the community “to pursue sensible policy options for banking, edibles, taxation, advertising, pesticides, data collection, and the gray and black markets. Freedman also served as the governor’s point person on marijuana issues for the federal government, the media, and other states and countries.”

In his role, Freedman was among several municipal and state regulators who spoke with elected and appointed officials from across the United States and the globe about this brave new world of marijuana legalization.

“Andrew Freedman has done a remarkable job shepherding Colorado through one of the great social experiments of this decade,” Hickenlooper said in a statement. “I think he has an invaluable expertise to support and assist other states as they work through issues of good government, public health and public safety. I believe he can serve as a connection between these states so we can all share lessons learned and communicate effectively with the federal government.”

Prior to his enforcement role with the department of revenue, Koski headed the state Marijuana Enforcement Division. Koski had worked for five years for the MED (formerly the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division).

Hudak, who authored the book “Marijuana: A Short History,” is the deputy director of Brookings’ Center for Effective Public Management.