Colorado's New Lead Marijuana Monitor Treks Through Heavy Issues

Dominique Mendiola likes to get outside when she's not keeping the pot industry in check.
Courtesy of the state Marijuana Enforcement Division
Dominique Mendiola likes to get outside when she's not keeping the pot industry in check.
Colorado's marijuana industry got a new principal in April after state Marijuana Enforcement Division director Jim Burack announced that he was leaving his role after more than five years. His successor, MED deputy director Dominique Mendiola, didn't lack experience, and she'll need it after a 2021 legislative session that saw the passage of several big marijuana laws.

Before taking the reins, Mendiola regularly led MED rulemaking sessions with marijuana industry stakeholders, and briefly served as former governor John Hickenlooper's director of marijuana coordination before Jared Polis was sworn in in January 2019. She'll rely on that background as she navigates the growing presence of Delta-8 THC and a new set of laws that will restructure Colorado's medical marijuana program, institute new concentrate packaging rules and set new limits on concentrate sales.

We caught up with Colorado's new weed commish to learn more about her plans to deal with the new laws, and how she gets outside to relieve the stress that comes with the job.

Westword: Marijuana businesses adopted quite a few temporary rules during the pandemic. Which of those rules have been made permanent by the MED since then?

Dominique Mendiola:
As with every rulemaking [session], this was a very collaborative process, and our adoption of emergency rules in response to COVID provided a unique opportunity to preview the successes and any challenges that came from licensees operating under the emergency rules, which allowed for curbside pick-up, walk-up and drive-up services in addition to advanced online payment options for retail marijuana. These emergency rules were adopted to offer a range of methods by which licensees could operate in compliance with public-health guidelines and the ability to implement measures to keep their employees, customers and the community safe. This all informed our approach to permanent rulemaking, and our rules now allow licensees to offer walk-up and drive-up options on a permanent basis, subject to local requirements and restrictions.

Cannabis commercialization has brought a lot of product innovation. How hard is it as a regulator to stay in tune with cultural and commercial developments in cannabis? Do you think that's important for regulators and watchdogs?

Colorado’s marijuana industry is made up of smart and innovative entrepreneurs, and dynamic developments are a constant. While it can certainly be a challenge to keep up with the innovation, we consider it a part of the job, and we are up to the task. This is a reason it’s so important for us as regulators to ensure our agency is staffed with subject matter expertise that complements the diversity and complexity of issues we navigate. We also want to be sure we aren’t limiting our engagement with stakeholders to forums we are leading, but going beyond that by proactively engaging with stakeholders in other forums and through outreach and education initiatives. This means we need to be prepared to lean into discussions on challenging topics, and it further demonstrates our commitment to learning from the diverse perspectives and learned experiences of all our stakeholders.

Governor Jared Polis signed House Bill 1317 in June, bringing several new rules to medical marijuana and commercial marijuana concentrate. What new rules will the MED be responsible for implementing now that HB 1317 is law?

Our implementation of this bill and other legislation from the 2021 session will be part of the MED’s extensive summer rulemaking plans. As it relates to HB 1317 specifically, subjects on which the MED will be responsible for promulgating rules include, but aren’t limited to: establishing a recommended serving size and labeling requirements for medical and retail concentrate; defining “physical or geographic hardship” for purposes of sales limits; advertising and marketing restrictions; and new inventory tracking requirements. The MED’s implementation work will also involve the development of educational resources, updates to the inventory tracking system, and development of a uniform certification form to be used by recommending physicians.

Although we are still in the planning stages, we expect to announce more details in the coming weeks, and we look forward to broad stakeholder engagement throughout the process. We encourage interested parties to check out our website and subscribe to receive updates to track and learn how to participate in the process.

The legislature also passed a law raising the marijuana possession limit from 1 to 2 ounces. Could that affect Colorado's daily marijuana purchasing limit in the future?

While recent legislation — House Bill 1090 — amended possession limits in the Criminal Code (Section 18-18-406, C.R.S.), this does not affect prior-established sales limits. Specifically, under 44-10-601, C.R.S., "[a] retail marijuana store may not sell more than one ounce of retail marijuana...during a single transaction to a person."

Delta-8 THC and other modified forms of cannabinoids have emerged around the state. How big of a presence did they have in Colorado's licensed marijuana market before the MED sent a memo in May clarifying that modified and synthetic cannabinoids are banned in dispensaries?

Novel, artificially derived or modified cannabinoids have been on the MED’s radar for several years, but we’re still learning about the scope of their presence in Colorado’s commercial marijuana market. The Colorado Marijuana Code and our rules establish the allowances and limitations regarding the use or sale of industrial hemp products by MED licensees, and we are actively monitoring potential public-health and safety concerns specific to these cannabinoids and investigating any potential violations of our rules. For reference, the MED issued a couple of compliance tips on May 20, 2020, and December 31, 2019, to advise licensees about what is and isn’t permitted when it comes to industrial hemp product.

How will the MED approach Delta-8 THC and modified cannabinoids going forward?

This is a subject we are monitoring closely. We recently issued a bulletin regarding the production and use of chemically modified or synthetically derived THC isomers, like Delta-8. We are actively engaged in discussions with our regulatory counterparts in other states, and it’s clear Colorado is not alone in learning about and navigating issues on this subject. We will continue to track developments at the state and federal level. That said, the scope of the MED’s regulatory authority is based in the Colorado Constitution and further directed by laws passed by the General Assembly. We expect to be presented with questions that go beyond the scope of our regulatory authority and that are more appropriately addressed by our partner agencies (specifically CDPHE or CDA). We work closely with our colleagues in these departments, and while we’re certainly prepared to support these discussions, we also need to be clear about and respect where our regulatory authority begins and ends as it relates to this subject.

When did the passion for snowboarding start?

I have a passion for all outdoor adventures, but I was snowboarding when I first fell in love with the mountains and my husband. Patrick is a skier, and when we were first dating, I joined in on his Vail “closing day” annual tradition. About five years later, we got married in Vail Village. We gathered at the base of Gondola 1 to say our vows, and then our amazing wedding party and guests (still in our formal wear, of course) joined in for a celebratory groomer run and après!

How often are you on the mountain?

Not often these days, but I’ve also since gravitated toward backpacking, mostly trekking sections of the Colorado Trail. In fact, we’re gearing up for our next adventure this August. These experiences have offered the best opportunities for me to recharge, find inspiration, and learn how to plan for and navigate new challenges in a transformative way. It also serves as a reminder of how important it is to respect (and protect!) our wild places.

Ever come across one of Summit County's infamous smoke shacks when you're shredding?

I haven’t come across them. Our go-to hills have been Vail and the Beav, with an occasional stop-off at Keystone.