As we approach our favorite unofficial holiday on April 20, it's nearly impossible to know the immediate future of Colorado's cannabis industry, with numerous regulatory and societal changes (and un-changes) surrounding the plant less than a month into the pandemic. But weeds are tough plants — and essential ones, too, according to the State of Colorado. To get more perspective, we caught up with a half-dozen cannabis trailblazers and OGs, all of whom were here before retail was legalized and the money quickly followed. Some have adapted to the evolving culture, others have refused to compromise, but all play a role in how we view the plant now — and how 4/20s of the future might look. Here's the first in our "Rolling With the Punches" series, an interview with attorney Brian Vicente.
Colorado's journey toward full legalization of cannabis has included several important steps, but the biggest was Amendment 64, the voter-approved initiative that legalized recreational pot in late 2012. The first-ever language legalizing and regulating the plant for recreational use in the country may not be as sexy as a greenhouse full of Sour Diesel, but its impact was much larger
Although often tweaked over the past seven-plus years, Amendment 64 remains a model for other states. To learn just how groundbreaking this initiative was and what changes might still be required, we checked in with one of its authors: attorney Brian Vicente. His law firm, Vicente Sederberg, is growing nearly as fast as the cannabis industry that he helped create, but that doesn't mean Vicente thinks we got everything right the first time.
Westword: Amendment 64 passed in November 2012, legalizing the sale and possession of recreational cannabis, as well as other rights such as home cultivation. But delivery and public social use took the state years to legalize, and are still banned by the vast majority of local governments. Personal possession and sales are limited to an ounce — in comparison to alcohol, which doesn't have any limits. Just how legal is marijuana in Colorado in 2020?
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Brian Vicente: I think cannabis is about as legal in Colorado as it is anywhere in the world. We stepped in front of this issue in 2012 and have continued to push at the state and local levels to be leaders. There are a lot of states that don't have home cultivation, or even recreational cannabis at all. So I think we continue to lead the way here.
What do you think has been the cannabis community's biggest win since Colorado legalized?
I think the biggest win since Amendment 64 passed has been the national and global spread of cannabis legalization, which really started here in Colorado. That provided a lot of cover [for us]. There was a lot of concern that the feds were going to come in here after we legalized and arrest everyone and put marijuana business owners in jail. But because of the support we got from other states and countries that were getting on board with this commonsense policy, we were able to change the game, and now cannabis is considered essential by a number of state governments during the pandemic.
Colorado has really demonstrated throughout the country and world that this is something that can be responsibly regulated while creating jobs and revenue. That's pretty remarkable, as you see these Gallup polls showing more and more support for legalization over the years. There's also a law enforcement side, and stopping marijuana arrests. We've been fairly successful with that; there are much fewer cannabis arrests in Colorado and other states now, and we look forward to the day when we have no adults arrested or in jail for following the law.
What about losses?
Yes. We could've done a better job in the last five to seven years of trying to address the social-equity issues that have persisted from the War on Drugs. Other states have really made an effort to make sure that individuals who were negatively impacted by the drug war — lower-income folks, people of color — have business opportunities in the cannabis economy. Colorado has given lip service to that in the last six months, but we have not been ahead. Other states are doing wholesale expungements for folks who were previously arrested, and we've made efforts in that direction, but we've really fallen behind in addressing the social-justice side of cannabis.
Was that brought up in 2012, when Colorado legalization efforts were starting to take hold?
That was definitely a hot topic in the minds of the organizers of the legalization campaign. Myself, Mason Tvert...we felt this was an important social-justice issue to work on. But we polled extensively in Colorado, and it showed us that the public was not interested in talking about racial and social justice, and that it would not be an effective method for us to legalize. Polls consistently showed that voters wanted to know how this would provide tax revenue, how it could lead to better use of police resources and fewer arrests, and so that's where we focused our resources. As such, in the language of Amendment 64, which I helped write, we really didn't go as far we could have, in retrospect, on the social-justice side.
Do you think Colorado's early adoption of commercial cannabis will ensure the state's status as the epicenter? It seems like there could be better growing environments for weed than Denver warehouses.
We definitely have a head start. We were the first to do it, and we really jumped in with both feet on the business side. There are tens of thousands of jobs here for marijuana and hemp, and we have a governor who is vocally pro-legalization and open to ideas about innovation around the cannabis economy. So I think we have a leadership position, and my hope is that we continue to hold it — but we have fallen a bit behind in things like social use and delivery. I hope this current economic crisis we're in will stimulate action in those areas. Colorado state and local governments are looking for tax revenue and income, and if they realize they can make more from allowing delivery and social clubs, I think there will be a willingness to consider those ideas more aggressively.
For the first time ever, I was able to get an Old Fashioned to go at my local bar. Are they really going to put the genie back in the bottle? Are they really going to say curbside takeout for marijuana is no longer legal, even though it's working and producing revenue? We're in a game-changing time right now.
Medical marijuana businesses have taken a big hit since recreational legalization, with several suburban towns not even allowing medical marijuana businesses within their borders. Why is that?
A lot of the medical patients have migrated into the recreational market. Purchase limits are different, but they can purchase similar products and visit shops frequently. They also don't need to go through the hassle of getting a medical card. So I think that's why we're seeing this transition, and some communities are seeing the potential for more tax revenue. I also think there's a belief by local governments that dual licensing can lead to additional levels of bureaucracy. There's all these little things you need to deal with, having both: distances between points of sale and all that, which can cause some regulatory headaches.
At what point did hemp become such a major player in Colorado's cannabis space?
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When we were campaigning for Amendment 64, I said there were three things voters needed to know about: It would stop arrests for adults possessing small amounts of marijuana, it would create a structure allowing sales in a regulated atmosphere, and it would legalize hemp. No one ever wanted to talk about that third point back then; it just wasn't as sexy or interesting. But we did become the first place to legalize hemp, and we've seen a lot of businesses developed in Colorado since, and nationally. Again, Colorado is blazing this trail.
I think that is an area that will continue to grow and morph, perhaps in some ways that folks don't realize yet. There's certainly emphasis right now on the CBD and medical side, but the industrial uses and environmental aspects are going to be so important to our world in coming years and decades as we struggle with climate change. We've also seen amazing movement at the federal level over the last several years, and now hemp farmers are eligible for stimulus funds from this $3 trillion federal aid package. Cannabis growers are not.
Do you see a point where hemp takes more of your energy in the future? Is there a peak coming for hemp or marijuana in Colorado any time soon?
Both industries have strong fundamentals. If you look at what happens during economic depressions, medicine and vices do very well. Whether it's guns or whiskey, people are stockpiling. Although I view cannabis as medicine, it has recreational purposes, and I think dispensary sales will bear fruit here. Hemp's ability to get federal stimulus will allow those businesses to have more leeway to grow during a down economy.
Both take up a lot of time for our law firm, and I think our workload will be closer to 50/50 in the near future.