As Denver's 2019 mayoral election nears, topics such as housing, development and the economy will be argued over by a growing list of candidates who hope to take down incumbent Michael Hancock. Another issue sure to come up will be legal cannabis, and the way that Denver has approached the new industry since recreational dispensaries opened in 2014.
And of all the candidates, only one — Lisa Calderón — is endorsed by one of the oldest cannabis advocacy groups in the country. We caught up with Calderón shortly after her endorsement by the Colorado branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) to learn more about her thoughts on the cannabis industry, social pot consumption and more.
Westword: How does an endorsement happen, or how did it happen in this case? Did someone reach out to you? Is there some sort of screening process?
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Lisa Calderón: It depends on the organization. Most frequently, it's an organization sending us questionnaires to get our positions on record. I'm thrilled with the endorsement, because it tells me that they see the kind of comprehensive approach I'd be taking to issues around decriminalization regarding drug use. Considering that over forty years of failed drug policy has wreaked havoc, particularly on communities of color, for me it's not just about cannabis, but the wider issues around it, including who gets criminalized and who gets opportunities in the industry. So it feels like [CO NORML and I] are aligned in that.
Mayor Hancock has expressed interest in raising minority participation in the cannabis industry. Do you think that could be done from a city level — and if so, how?
Mayor Hancock is really behind the times when it comes to looking at these issues. One of the reasons I think I got this endorsement is that he's been coming out with some acknowledgement of the industry and some changes, but it's been too little, too late. I've been a justice-reform advocate for over fifteen years, and a lot of the issues with mass incarceration have to do with how our government reacts to drug use.
When I used to run the city's re-entry program, there were several issues we pursued the city on that they're just starting to do in an election year. One of those was expungement and record-sealing. Marijuana-related offenses are one of the barriers people face when out of jail and trying to get a job, but the city wasn't always open to having these conversations.
We worked with nonprofit lawyers and organizations to get these records expunged and sealed before the city's new program. But not a whole lot of people have been approved for record-sealing. I also think it's important to [distinguish] record-sealing from expungement. The city sold this as an expungement program, but this is record-sealing. In expungement the crime goes away, but in record-sealing it's gone except from the eyes of certain people in the legal system.
I believe it was San Francisco that has figured out how to expunge thousands of records efficiently and effectively. Why isn't Denver doing that? Why are they requiring people to go through a laborious process just to find out they don't even qualify? Denver needs to do a better job of finding out who is eligible and reaching out to them.
Denver is viewed as a tough market to enter for beginning cannabis entrepreneurs. Is there any way to be more welcoming to startups and independent businesses as we wait on federal legalization?
Denver has a love/hate relationship with the cannabis industry. They love the revenue it brings, but they hate the thought of partnering with an industry that has been stigmatized for so long — unfairly, I think, because it has also been a racialized, punishment-based system when it comes to marijuana-related laws. It has played out into this dual relationship in who gets licenses: how easy it is, how difficult it is, and the fees for everything — even minor changes — are too high.
I support policy recommendations on how to make the industry more accessible to new communities, particularly those hit hardest by the disproportionate policing of cannabis use. Part of those policy recommendations are recruiting more minority business owners, reducing fees that often prevent people from entering the industry, and robust data collection and analysis in industry trends to see who's included and who's left out. Investing in people of color and women in the industry is an issue we need to look at.
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This goes back to that dual relationship between cannabis use and legalization. We have this contradictory relationship with legalized substances. Former Governor Hickenlooper can brag about being a brewery owner and a leader of a city and state, yet Mayor Hancock can't even step into a dispensary and have an up-front conversation about what the cannabis industry means to Denver.
The city has made social consumption a difficult reality, even though the voters overwhelmingly supported it. I think that goes back to stigmatizing an industry the city is benefiting from. We need to make peace with the fact that we've legalized it in the city.
Governor Jared Polis used his connection to the cannabis industry and its consumers to help spur his campaign last year. How do you think appealing to cannabis users can help during an election?
I think it's actually just being responsive to the voters and knowing your constituents. Of course there's an advantage to that — but I also think that with the current mayoral administration, they're coming in too late. It looks like pandering rather than being responsive to an industry that has been around for years. Wanda James, my campaign treasurer, was also a key contributor to Polis's campaign. Having a governor who understands the industry and responsible regulation can help Denver move forward.