The politics of marijuana have evolved rapidly over the past five years, with pot-industry trade groups and businesses now represented by lobbyists at the state and federal level. State Representative Jonathan Singer, a Democrat from Longmont, has been part of this evolution.
An instrumental legislator in any discussion of marijuana laws and regulations, Singer has fought for bills that have both pleased and irked the pot industry and advocates, but they appreciate his willingness to listen and his view of the plant as much more than a federally illegal substance. Singer regularly receives random phone calls because he lists his cell phone number on his website, so Westword gave him a ring to chat about the current state of Colorado marijuana policy.
Westword: Were you surprised by any of the three cannabis bills Governor John Hickenlooper vetoed last session?
Jonathan Singer: The easiest way to put it is to say I was surprised. When you have a governor who wasn't really supportive of marijuana legalization in the first place, I don't think you can say it was a huge shock to lose on any of those fronts. But it certainly gave Jared Polis the opportunity to talk about what his administration would do and what Hickenlooper's didn't do, so I guess that was the biggest win out of all those losses.
The biggest disappointment for me on the social-consumption front was that while we never had sign-off from the Governor's Office, we did work with the Marijuana Enforcement Division on the front end, and even though they never gave official approval, we thought we were nearing support on that issue.
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The marijuana delivery bill was probably the bigger surprise to me. It was a very modest first step; we turned a very large bill into a pilot program. Once we found out recreational marijuana was a bridge too far for the Senate, we said, 'Okay, let's make this for medical marijuana only for now." But if prescription medication delivery is a thing, then why can't medical marijuana be delivered to your front door? That wasn't a governor's veto (the bill died in a Senate committee), but the Governor's Office and state patrol certainly weren't supporting the bill.
Will you revisit marijuana social consumption in the legislature next year?
Absolutely. Regardless of who the next governor of Colorado is, you can certainly count me on board in finding a solution toward truly treating marijuana like alcohol.
What are some other cannabis-related issues you or your legislative colleagues hope to tackle in 2019?
Part of that is going to be determined by who the next governor is — and not just in which bills get carried out, but what those bills will look like. We'd have a long road to hoe with the Stapleton administration, who seem to think medical marijuana is a scam, and we'd need to make sure patients aren't left out in the cold.
Minorities and people of color haven't benefited from legal marijuana as much as I'd hoped. I think you'll see some legislation on that front. You've seen some models toward minority access in Oakland and Massachusetts. If these folks have been impacted more by the drug war than anyone, what can we do to make sure they're involved in this industry around a regulated substance?
[That could be] a micro-license similar to a micro-brewery that allows smaller players into the game without so much capital, or maybe creating a sort of sub-license or licensee under a larger entity. For example, let's say I have a really successful dispensary, but maybe there's a niche strain from a grower who doesn't have the financial wherewithal or otherwise to get their marijuana business license. Why not provide an opportunity to create some sort of profit-sharing model with a larger licensee to get compensation for what you're doing while also operating in the legal market instead of the black market?
There's also been a lot of talk about harmonizing medical and recreational marijuana. I think theres some really positive thoughts about what this might do: If there are regulations that are working really well for recreational or medical, then why not copy and paste? But there is a stealth element we need to consider about what that could to do to eliminate our medical marijuana markets.
There are some people who are wondering why we don't tax medical marijuana the same way we tax recreational marijuana, and that's because we don't tax medicine in Colorado. But I could see harmonizing turning that into a bargaining chip, and that's something we need to be concerned about.
I'm worried people are trying to further attempt to erode our marijuana caregiver model in Colorado. In places where marijuana sales are illegal or it's just so cost-prohibitive that the only thing that works is a caregiver model, I hope we can support them until we figure out these regulatory issues.
I think we should actually talk about eliminating the state sales tax on medical marijuana, especially veterans with PTSD or families trying to help their kids for severe seizures. Why is the state trying to profit off sick patients if it's not doing the same to opioids or prescription drugs?
Do you think the General Assembly is properly educated about marijuana's health, impairment and social effects?
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I think we have a much more even-handed knowledge base than we did just a couple years ago. I think part of it is just a generational shift. You have newer, younger lawmakers here that don't just see marijuana as only a recreational drug. It has medical properties and can be similar to alcohol.
As time has gone on, I think the knowledge base has improved, and it's not seen as the socially unacceptable thing it would've been even four or five years ago. I would also say there could be a pretty large shift after these terms. I think there will be around a 30 percent turnover between term limits and some people losing their Colorado House and Senate seats. There needs to be a lot of education about marijuana's health effects, and this kind of turnover could present an opportunity to improve that.
How would you compare the political engagement of the cannabis industry now as compared to five years ago?
In 2012, I was kind of out on a limb being the only lawmaker running for reelection that had supported or endorsed anything like Amendment 64. Now you've got an industry that really wants to make sure marijuana is treated fairly. They don't want to be treated like social pariahs. That's the positive side, but we still need to be on guard that financial interests aren't taking precedent over health and social issues. You need to put the needs of the entire state before one or two businesses.