Andrew Freedman, Colorado's Former Marijuana Czar, Doesn't See Federal Legalization Coming Soon | Westword

Andrew Freedman on Legalization and His Time as Colorado's Marijuana Czar

Andrew Freedman lost his job in January, but it wasn't due to poor performance. In fact, the Colorado Director of Marijuana Coordination was let go for just the opposite reason: He'd been hired to implement the state's framework of rules and industry regulations for recreational marijuana, and he'd done such a good job that the state was eliminating the job entirely.
Andrew Freedman became the country's first state marijuana czar in 2014.
Andrew Freedman became the country's first state marijuana czar in 2014. YouTube
Share this:
Andrew Freedman lost his job in January, but it wasn't because of poor performance. In fact, the Colorado director of marijuana coordination was let go for just the opposite reason: He'd been hired to implement the state's framework of rules and industry regulations for recreational marijuana, and he'd done such a good job that the state was eliminating the job entirely.

Freedman, now 34, had been hired out of Harvard Law School as former lieutenant governor Joe Garcia's chief of staff. He then moved his way up in Governor John Hickenlooper's administration, becoming the country's first state-employed marijuana czar in 2014. And it was Hickenlooper who decided to close the Office of Marijuana Coordination at the end of 2016, after a successful framework had been established for marijuana regulation.

Using his rare experience and knowledge gained on the job, early this year Freedman started a consulting firm with former Marijuana Enforcement Division director Lewis Koski and John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, for local and state governments that have considered or are considering legalizing marijuana. So far, Freedman's dream team of marijuana policy experts has focused on government consulting and ancillary businesses in an effort to avoid any charges of conflict of interest – or selling out. Freedman says his firm has lost out on around $2.5 million in contracts by sticking to the policy of not working with licensed marijuana businesses.

But in his own way, Freedman's working for everyone in the industry: He believes in minimizing the challenges that governments face after marijuana is legalized, and he's experienced many of those challenges firsthand. Before leaving his post, he dealt with dosing and edibles packaging issues that made national headlines, a new gray market, and federal lawsuit attempts from neighboring states over Colorado's decision to legalize.

Freedman recently sat down with Westword to talk about what he's been up to in his new gig, what he learned as Colorado's marijuana czar, and where he think the state's growing pot industry is heading.

Westword: How does implementing the first full-scale retail marijuana legalization program in the country help you advise other states thinking about doing the same?

Andrew Freedman: There’s about 1,000 small lessons, but we really believe in an open process. The more you can open this up for transparent decision-making, the better off it's going to go. One of the things we’ve learned from edibles — because we had such large stakeholder engagement — is when we ran into a problem at the beginning with the over-consuming of edibles or packaging, we could gather everybody back in the room, and they could all buy into a new decision.

That kind of stuff was hard on the industry, because they had literally just spent millions of dollars on equipment. Now they had to destroy it and buy new equipment, but because they were in an open process, I think they still felt heard and were okay doing that. Another thing we try hard to communicate is that we don’t think Colorado had all the answers. Colorado was kind of version 1.0, and now we're looking at how to evolve to version 2.0.

What are some specific obstacles you met in Colorado that you’re trying to help other states avoid?

The sort of data that’s helpful in understanding how this is going just started existing. We get tons of data from seed-to-sale tracking that could be used in a lot of ways to protect public health, public safety, find solutions to banking and help create stronger regulatory systems. That data was totally new to Colorado — it didn’t exist before legalization. But now we can do so much more with it. We advise states to think hard about all the different functions from that system.

What can states do before legalization to be ahead of that data curve?

Driving while high is a great example. We don’t have any baseline data about it in Colorado. If you can get marijuana legalization committed a year ahead of time and use that time to properly train officers and have a year's worth of data before you go into legalization, the more you’ll know if you have a problem or not.

Another thing we talk about is school suspension rates: We were gathering that sort of data as drug suspensions and weren't pulling out marijuana-specific suspensions. We'd like to have a real-time view to see if this is impacting K-12 schools, and it would've been great to have that baseline information available.

click to enlarge
Andrew Freedman (third from left) stood by Hickenlooper during his days as director of the Office of Marijuana Coordination.
Colorado House Democrats
What are some specific issues Colorado avoided or handled well?

We see Colorado as a successful system. Not the end-all system, but certainly something to build on. We saw three areas that really helped that success. The first was executive leadership: As much as people on both sides of legalization wish that Hickenlooper was somewhere else in this debate, the truth is that he really did focus on proper implementation. Truthfully, I don't see that very often traveling from state to state. Most of the executive branches are pretty hands-off. It was a rare instance to have the top-level state executive so attached.

It’s a high-stakes political loser. The more you tie yourself to it, the more you have to lose. It was pretty risky for Hickenlooper to take on implementation and own the system — and he ultimately did own the system, in a way that I don't think any other governor has to date. Some are starting to, but from day one, it was very clear that this was going to be a government initiative in Colorado. That's why my position even existed.

Second would be coordination between departments. It might sound boring on the outside, but the extent to which things only happen in one department that is never communicated to another is one of the things that holds back government. But this was really a team effort in Colorado, in part because we had a coordinating person (myself), but more because the executive directors from all the agencies decided they were going to hold hands and do this together.

The third is the open stakeholder process, for so many reasons. Not just because it's smart politically, but because you truly get to better answers. It's so important to open this process up and listen to everybody.

Did you realize how much ground you were breaking as you were rolling this out in Colorado?

Yes. It gave us an opportunity to be wrong. Governments so often try to protect themselves from looking like they made a bad decision. It’s okay to make a bad decisions here, because you’re truly guessing. Sometimes I think you need to be able to admit that you might not have the best answer, it’s just your best answers for now, and if data shows you something different, you’ll change the way you’re doing things. I wish more government did that.
click to enlarge
Andrew Freedman speaking at a marijuana management symposium in 2016, shortly before leaving his post.
Kate McKee Simmons
What are some issues Colorado’s marijuana system was facing when you left that it continues to deal with?

There’s some pretty large systematic issues. Marijuana moved from a Libertarian model under medical marijuana, where it was really about hands-off government, to the public asking for a taxed and regulated system – and those two systems are really in conflict with each other. That shows up most with home grows. To the extent to which the public asked for a regulated system, that means the entirety of the system needs to be regulated. You can’t have a massive unregulated part.

Recent legislation, which I know is a very divisive policy, limited home grows. I think that was a good step in making sure that we had control over the system in a way that we could protect public safety. There have been murders associated with marijuana legalization, but they've almost all been in this unregulated market. That still needs to be monitored to make sure the current rules cut down on the violence and out-of-state diversion we’ve seen.

Obviously, things like banking remain problematic, to the extent to which there’s not a clear route to get banking, accounting or lawyers involved in the industry. It’s hard to be fully compliant.

A lot of the advocates who were pushing for marijuana legalization were used to that hands-off approach by the government, and they haven’t been happy with more regulation since the retail industry began. How do you build a tightly regulated system that Coloradans will accept after working with much looser enforcement?

I’ve definitely taken my fair share of hate mail on that one. To us, there was a very clear ask from the voter after Amendment 64 passed: to regulate marijuana like alcohol. That meant there was an ask to move away from this hands-off system. There are definitely people who disagree with that move, and that's their right to do so. But our job was to implement the will of the people.

Frankly, where Colorado could still progress quite a bit is social equity. Our talks on social equity were pretty limited. We were very focused on getting a regulatory system up and running – economic policy, enforcement, job opportunities – and we didn't really talk enough about social equity in these situations. The more data you get on the front end about those things, the more you can try to solve problems going forward.

When you’re meeting with officials from other state governments, are they educated about cannabis and the social and health issues that come with it?

I view it all as a conversation. Some places you do feel like you’re going back in time a little bit. You’ll land in a state, and the questions being asked are questions you would’ve heard three or four years ago in Colorado. But in other places, it’s only going back six months or so. We try to tell people everywhere this: In the short term, understand that people are rational, reasonable people at heart. The sky’s not going to fall, because people are going to act in a way they see as responsible. It doesn’t mean you won’t have positive or negative externalities.

I was once asked the question, “Are all these parents going to show up high to pick up their kids from school [if we legalize]?” (He laughs.) No, because parents love their kids, and they want to drive responsibly. Some will, but they probably already do. I tell them that they’re just not going to see these massive changes in behavior.

I suppose the West Coast has a more accepting attitude that this is going to happen. On the East Coast, there is a more divisive feel toward it, to the extent that I’m kind of surprised some of these states have legalized. It’s just so much more divisive there than it has been here.
click to enlarge
Freedman and former MED director Lewis Koski started their consulting firm, Freedman and Koski, in early 2017.

Is it tougher to implement a statewide marijuana system for the first time, or maintain it after it’s been created?

It’s harder to implement it, without a doubt. There’s just so much work to be done: unproven technologies, and the industry is still defining itself so you don’t know who the responsible players are. There's a lot of noise: Everybody thinks they’re going to be a millionaire, so there's a lot frenetic energy around.

I will say that once these things start to define their own lines, it’s really hard to change. Once an industry gets moving in a certain direction, it's hard to go back and revisit it, because a lot of people have a lot of capital invested in whatever direction it's going, so there’s a momentum on its own. Some of the changes that might’ve been easy at first become harder to get to as you go along.

The other part about maintaining that is dealing with industry gains and lobbying power, and expertise and nuance that you didn't have at the beginning. All of those make it more of a battle.

Does industry power change from state to state when it comes to influencing rules and regulations?

Absolutely. The industry has really changed in Colorado. It’s consolidated quite a bit, and people have found their political voice. In other states, those players haven’t made money yet, and some big players might not even be in the game yet, either. One person said he felt like he was currently dealing with the mom-and-pops who were soon going to lose to Blockbuster, which was soon going to lose to Netflix – and to some extent, I think that's true. This is an agricultural commodity, so grows that can get really big are going to start taking over.

Do you have any sort of pulse on the chances or timing of federal legalization?

One thing last November taught me is that I have just as poor of a political crystal ball as everyone else. But I do wonder if the dynamics aren’t exactly built for federal legalization to happen, mainly because the way this movement has gone through. It’s already picked up the states that are avidly for legalization. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find Coloradans who want to march on D.C. for national legalization, because they already have it here. The same goes for California and other legalized states.

The industry that's being built around this movement is reliant on it being a state system, not a federal system. I think a lot of the industry would be out of business pretty quickly if it were legalized federally, so it might actually want to lobby against federal legalization.

I can’t think of anything that has been like this. I know a lot of people like to compare it to gay marriage, but with state-to-state gay marriage, it just didn’t make sense if you could travel to a different state once and be married. That was also won on judicial grounds, and I really don’t see that path forward for marijuana. There’s a question in my mind if we’ll ever see federal legalization.

Anything you want to get off your chest now that you're not working for The Man?

It’s worthwhile to talk about budget money. Everybody was really excited about the tax revenue, and now everyone wants to know where it went. One of the lessons learned for us was expectation-setting: We did put $70 million toward school construction, but the estimated need for Colorado school construction is, like, $13 billion. We argue that with things like education, health care, transportation — pot’s just not enough money to move the needle on those. It’s ultimately a rounding error for those things.

We advocate focusing on things that don't traditionally get funding. Homelessness would be a good one. With discretionary marijuana tax revenue, we could really move the needle on that. Then the conversation could go from “Does marijuana cause homelessness?” to “Is marijuana helping end homelessness?”

Education is so warm and feel-good, and I truly believe we need to put more resources in it. But people have such an outsized view of what marijuana money can do, when it’s actually less than a percentage point of our total state budget. It might actually hold education back, because it’s harder to raise other taxes when everyone thinks marijuana will solve the problem; it won’t. I truly believe that marijuana revenue could help solve a problem like homelessness, but it’s not going to put a new gym in every school.

Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Westword has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.