Legal marijuana isn't new to Colorado anymore, but some of the positions required to regulate it are still unique. Just ask Jim Burack, the state Marijuana Enforcement Division director and former chief of investigation. Responsible for overseeing the regulations of a controversial yet rapidly developing industry, Burack must be diplomatic with federal authorities and keep bad industry players in line while ensuring that good actors aren't overly restricted.
To learn more about one of the state's most powerful marijuana officials, Westword interviewed Burack about his job and his opinions on commercializing the plant.
Westword: You have an extensive background in police work in Colorado. What were your initial thoughts when Colorado was considering recreational legalization in 2012?
Jim Burack: I was a Westminster police officer and municipal police chief in northern Colorado, and I've served as a military prosecutor — so I have certainly had experience with both enforcing marijuana laws and prosecuting marijuana cases. In 2012, one initial reaction I had was knowing it would be a challenging transition for multiple stakeholders in the criminal justice system.
How has marijuana crime changed from the 1990s or early 2000s to now? What are police looking for and investigating as compared to ten or twenty years ago?
Marijuana crime two decades ago was pretty clear: Cultivation and possession of marijuana were illegal. In 2000, Amendment 20 (allowing medical marijuana) blurred the lines, but it was a narrow exception. Today's framework in Colorado is more complicated, given the legalization of both medical and retail marijuana and the criminal and administrative laws addressing both the regulated and illicit marijuana markets. The once-clear distinctions are now more complicated.
I think Colorado state agencies responsible for overseeing legal marijuana in the state, with key policy development from the Governor’s Office and the General Assembly, have made significant progress over the last five years clarifying marijuana laws and rules and then ensuring that stakeholders, including law enforcement, the health-care community, regulated marijuana licensees and the public, have the tools needed to clearly understand the rules and provide feedback through collaborative engagement.
For example, the recent law that created the twelve-plant count limit per residence gives law enforcement a brighter line to determine more quickly what is and isn't legal in the home grow space. This developed directly from the state's ongoing conversations with local law enforcement on the front lines. This ongoing dialogue with key stakeholders has enhanced public safety statewide.
You used to be chief of investigations for the MED. What did that role entail, and what were some of the most interesting cases you uncovered?
The chief oversees day-to-day operations, which basically means licensing of businesses and individuals, and administrative and criminal investigations. I think it's fair to say I've been an up-close-and-personal witness to the evolution and maturation of the marijuana industry over the last half-decade, and my observation is that the industry has become generally more compliant over time. While we have certainly encountered and addressed instances of serious illegal conduct in the regulated space, we have also witnessed the industry attracting skilled and experienced business owners and operators, perhaps due to the dynamism, opportunity for innovation and potential for growth in the space.
What drew you to regulating and working around legal marijuana?
Clearly, the challenge of working in a regulatory and enforcement role in a new and rapidly developing industry was primary. The chance to work with similarly dedicated staff at the MED to help shape the rules and regulations around this new industry in Colorado has been a unique opportunity, especially as we've gained and maintained a reputation as the regulatory leader nationally, and even internationally.
As the agency responsible for regulating an industry that carries so much interest and debate, how do you weigh the needs and complaints of all sides?
You raise a key challenge that has developed over the last few years: the proliferation and factionalization of marijuana interests. The MED has recognized and responded to that challenge through active engagement with diverse key stakeholders such as members of the General Assembly; the law enforcement community at the federal, state and local levels; local licensing authorities at the municipal and county levels; public health providers and licensed marijuana businesses and employees. I think we have been pretty successful in trying to understand and contribute to balancing the perspectives and interests of all these stakeholders.
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What have you learned about the plant since working around it? Any myths busted?
Above all, I think Colorado has demonstrated that we have been pretty responsible in creating and implementing a framework to regulate commercial marijuana, a controlled substance under federal law. Not to say that we have gotten everything right, given all the challenges marijuana legalization has presented. Specific to the licensed, regulated arena, we're continually improving year after year.
For example, some topics that we're paying close attention to include: hemp, vaping and other products derived from concentrates, and impaired driving, just to name a few. While change is undoubtedly a constant for us, our ongoing commitment is to be protective of public health and safety, always.
I'd encourage the public to take a look at the recently released 2017 Market Update report commissioned by the MED. This report uses current state data, and its conclusions support the view that the regulated space is working pretty effectively. Part of the success has been a group of stakeholders who largely hold shared values about how the regulated framework should be configured, though it's not without ongoing and evolving challenges.