Customers in a retail marijuana store in Denver. (Seth McConnell, Denver Post file)

Colorado illustrates how special interests and establishment politics threaten cannabis industry

The Denver Post opinion pages solicited commentary from various marijuana policy and industry leaders, as well as the public, for a special cannabis-themed edition of the Sunday Perspective section the weekend before 4/20. The Cannabist will be presenting these op-eds throughout the week.

The 2016 election brought watershed changes to the social and political landscape of America, through the election of a new and highly controversial president, and through an even greater show of widespread demand for ending cannabis prohibition. A total of eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized the adult use of cannabis, and 28 have approved some form of medical use. This increasing support is fueled by frustration with failed prohibition policies, and grassroots efforts to reverse the historically damaging effects of the drug war. Yet, regardless of the support of the populous, implementation of these reforms has run into a new set of problems, subjugated by special interests and establishment politics.

In Colorado that primary special interest is the alcohol industry, which is often backed by top leaders, Gov. John Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, through their steadfast acceptance of alcohol and ongoing reluctance to embrace the burgeoning cannabis industry. Most recently these efforts were applied through various alcohol, restaurant and lodging associations to stymie implementation of I-300 in Denver, a voter-approved initiative that will provide places for adults to socially consume cannabis, as well as opposing similar legislation at the state capitol. An example of this is the Liquor Enforcement Division (“LED”), which passed a rule to ban the consumption of cannabis at any business that holds a liquor license. Even though the Colorado General Assembly Office of Legislative Legal Services determined the LED implemented this ban without any statutory authority, a legislative committee allowed the rule change to stand by just one vote. Noticeably absent from this vote were two members of the legislature who before the meeting had verbally confirmed their votes to overturn the LED rule.

While a lawsuit by businesses and advocates against the Colorado Department of Revenue challenges the LED decision, the City of Denver’s advisory committee for implementing I-300 faced many over-zealous proposals to stifle the intent of the initiative, such as a rule that prohibits cannabis events within 1,000 feet from where alcohol is served, requiring customers to sign consent forms, and setting stringent limitations on where designated consumption areas can be located. However, the committee, comprised of mostly citizens and some city officials, came to a clear consensus to move the program forward, echoed by repetitive and supportive comments from the public. Denver is now drafting the final rules, and nearly ready to issue permits. Resistance from the alcohol industry remains, likely attributed to the fact that cannabis is becoming a popular and safer choice for adults, and these shifting attitudes pose a significant threat to their revenues and profits generated in this very wet state.

Property development presents another major challenge to the cannabis industry. In 2016, Denver city officials promoted a narrative about the concentration of cannabis businesses in some of the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods, lending council to pass a sweeping moratorium across the city. Though violent crime and teen use is down since legalization, these were two oft-cited concerns for needing the licensing cap in place. This fear-mongering went so far that the mayor’s office released widely disputed stats related to the negative impact of cannabis businesses in those areas to serve that agenda, when what’s really at play is their desire for unimpeded development in RiNo, and the grossly negligent Interstate 70 expansion.

Unfortunately, there are scores of stories from legal cannabis operators across the city that have been zoned out of properties or required to pay exorbitant fines without any due process, and without any rules in place to govern those decisions. The industry today remains cautious of pushing back on these unethical practices out of fear of further retribution from city authorities. Although many stories are known among industry operators, very few come to light because of this. In late 2016 two stories that did make headlines, and resulted in lawsuits against the city, outlined how zoning changes since legalization have forced certain cultivators from their established properties.

Even though voters have approved nearly every cannabis measure on the ballot, elected officials persist with the agendas of special interests. The cannabis movement has made significant advances in recent years, but it has only become more evident that with growing acceptance and shifting attitudes, new and unique challenges will rise, as prohibitionists attempt to make their last stand. The people should demand elected officials implement the will of the voters, treat the legal cannabis industry fairly, and work together to overcome stigma and end the drug war.

Kayvan Khalatbari is co-founder of Denver Relief Consulting, an international cannabis consultancy. Emmett Reistroffer is a policy consultant at Denver Relief Consulting. He was involved in passage of Colorado’s Amendment 64 and was the campaign director for Initiative 300 in Denver.

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