Denver Relief Consulting's announcement of a new partnership with Laura Harris, former head of Colorado's Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division, instantly stirred controversy, with some members of the local cannabis community crying foul and at least one good-government activist citing potential ethical concerns. But DRC co-founders Ean Seeb and Kayvan Khalatbari tout Harris's move to the industry side of the fence, arguing that her expertise can help other states that are considering or implementing progressive marijuana policies.
"We're always looking to expand our team," Seeb says, "and we were thinking out of the box about who good team members would be. We've always respected and admired Laura, so we had a conversation with her. She was open to the opportunity, and now she's part of our team."
Last summer, Harris was in a very different place, but not for much longer: In July, she announced that she was leaving her MMED job as of August 1, 2013. Shortly thereafter, we noted mixed feelings about her tenure.
"No question that Harris has been the target of criticism, particularly due to a damning audit of the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division," we wrote at the time. "Released in March, the document blasts the MMED for ineffective oversight, as well as poor management of funds exemplified by a graphic showing nineteen consecutive months of net losses during fiscal years 2011 and 2012, much of it on Harris's watch; she took over in late 2011."
Here's that graphic:
However, marijuana attorney Warren Edson gave high marks to Harris when it came to communicating with MMJ stakeholders. He called a January meeting to review proposed changes to medical marijuana regulation as surprisingly pleasant, with Harris proving open to discussion about proposals such as "removing live-feed cameras from dispensaries and simplifying the manifest process so the industry wasn't having to send quite as many documents and the state wasn't having to deal with receiving so many documents," he pointed out.
Likewise, Edson praised Harris for considering what he sees as some common-sense alterations in rules. Indeed, his main gripe about her involved the timing of her departure, mere months before recreational sales were to launch.
It didn't take long for Harris to find a place in the private sector. In December, as reported by the Denver Business Journal, she joined the law firm of Dill, Dill, Carr, Stonbraker & Hutchings, PC, as a regulatory consultant. And this week, Harris added the DRC partnership to her schedule. She wasn't available to speak with Westword, but a statement from the release quotes her as saying, "It's exciting to be able to bring my expertise on cannabis regulation to Denver Relief Consulting, a firm that has demonstrated a commitment to establishing a responsible model for the entire nation to follow. As more states follow Colorado's regulatory lead, both in medical and retail cannabis, it is imperative that individual governments have a framework in which to work so that there are no unintended consequences."
The announcement prompted a CBS4 story noting that Harris is the second state marijuana regulator to move into the pot industry, following Matt Cook, who worked closely with legislators in developing Colorado's marijuana rules after the laws authorizing medical sales and shops went into effect. He jumped into the consultancy business after leaving his state job and subsequently appeared on a 60 Minutes broadcast about the Colorado weed scene.
There's nothing illegal about such moves, but Elena Nunez, state executive director of Common Cause, told the station that "there are a couple of problems potentially. One, they have specialized knowledge of the agency and its processes, and they also have special relationships that can influence their ability to get approval for contracts contributions or other things." Likewise, Representative Dan Pabon cautioned that "we need to make sure those folks who are privy to confidential information about the industry or client matters maintain that confidentiality and privilege."
Far less circumspect is prominent marijuana advocate Kathleen Chippi, who blasted Harris and Cook in an e-mail to Westword. She writes: "The CO pot regulators seem to be building the empire that they plan on benefiting from and no one seems to care how corrupt it is. 'Foul play' would be called in any other instance. I wonder if the feds are okay with an 'F' audit and the head 'regulators' joining the industry they were supposed to regulate."
Harsh words -- but Seeb and Khalatbari believe many of the complaints are unfounded. Khalatbari stresses that Harris will not be handling DRC business in Colorado. Instead, she'll be consulting with clients in other states where DRC operates.
"I handle our application management in other states: Illinois, Nevada, Washington -- states where we're working with clients and having a lot of conversations with regulators," Khalatbari says. "And since very few people have been in charge of a division like she was, her skills and experiences are very unique. We can not only use her insight from an operational standpoint, but by taking her into other states and having discussions with regulators, we can help them get going, and help them to avoid some of the mistakes that were made in Colorado and other places.
"Speaking on the front end to some of these states that have yet to pass laws allows us to be educators," he adds. "We can spread the word on what the industry is really all about, and not necessarily what people see on TV."
As for criticism about Harris's time in charge of the MMED, Seeb believes many of the issues were beyond her control. "There was somewhat of a flawed system in place," he allows. "There were a lot of problems with the MMED and the way it was run before, and we feel Laura was very proactive in making positive changes to the system and the regulation of medical cannabis -- and now, adult-use cannabis in Colorado."
Because Harris's focus for DRC is outside Colorado, not within it, Khalatbari feels many of the ethical concerns cited by CBS4 won't come into play. He acknowledges that regulators moving from state jobs to private ones is "common practice" in many industries. "That's happened for quite some time, and it's going to continue to happen. But we feel that for such a young industry, it's especially important to have someone who was on the ground floor on our side. There's often a curtain or a veil in front of these agencies in other states, where they aren't always as open and transparent as we'd like them to be. So working with Laura gives us an opportunity to know what they're thinking and why they're thinking it.
"This industry is growing up, and we need to collaborate together to make it as good as it can be. We can only do that if we're transparent, honest and bring all points to the table. And that's what we're trying to do."
Here's the CBS4 story about Harris and Cook.
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More from our Marijuana archive circa July 2013: "Marijuana Enforcement Division head Laura Harris's retirement timing 'poor to awful'?"