Colorado's foray into legal marijuana is still pretty young, but the state is already on its third director of marijuana policy since 2014, when recreational marijuana sales began. The first to take on the role, Andrew Freedman, left in 2017 after three years on the job; his successor, Mark Bolton, was gone shortly after. All that shuffling at the state level could cause concern, but the most recent person on the job has plenty of experience.
Before becoming Colorado's newest director of marijuana policy in July, Dominique Mendiola spent over four years as deputy director of the state Marijuana Enforcement Division, focusing on policy and regulation while helping implement the first retail marijuana industry in the country. Westword recently chatted with our new pot czar to learn more about her background and what she anticipates in the role.
Westword: How did you end up working in marijuana policy?
Dominique Mendiola: Prior to working with the MED, I practiced law and volunteered with the San Antonio Police Department, providing resources to victims of domestic violence and supporting detectives on sex-crimes cases. When I joined the MED, I was drawn by the unique opportunity to apply my legal and community-advocacy experience, coupled with my interest in regulatory law, to the evolving and complex arena of marijuana regulation.
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What are some challenges you anticipate as the new director of marijuana policy?
We’ve identified a need for more comprehensive and consistent data collection to ensure that the citizens of Colorado, policy makers and General Assembly are informed of the impacts of legalization. We are getting more data in place so we can better understand the impacts and allocate resources, but it is an issue we continue to navigate.
Second, the marijuana industry in Colorado is incredibly innovative, where we see a continuous development of the types of products on the market. This requires regulators to quickly adapt and ensure that statutory and regulatory requirements keep pace with these developments to maintain public health and safety.
What did you learn from your time working with the MED? How did it prepare you for your current role under Governor Hickenlooper?
The MED has established a culture of collaboration, which is key to the manner by which MED navigates issues and facilitates its rulemaking process. This robust stakeholder engagement has prepared me to support the Governor’s Office in maintaining and expanding on our engagement with the law enforcement community, other states and the federal government.
The issue of public consumption continues to loom over Colorado after Hickenlooper vetoed the dispensary sampling-room bill. How can the state and cannabis users find a compromise to safely regulate social cannabis consumption?
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Colorado is recognized as the regulatory leader when it comes to the commercial, licensed medical- and adult-use marijuana industry. This is, in part, due to the state’s incremental approach to legalization and understanding the need for data and robust analysis on public-health risks to include impacts on impaired driving, youth use and secondhand exposure. As we continue to collect and analyze this data, I think it will help inform future policy changes.
Working around legal marijuana generally carries some risk for industry members thanks to the plant's federally illegal status. Can the same be said for its regulators? Or do you think working in such a challenging arena is good for a career in public service?
Our focus is implementing the will of the voters of Colorado in a manner that prioritizes the protection of public health and safety. It’s also critical that we have an active dialogue with our federal partners, such that it’s clear Colorado has worked diligently to establish a responsible framework that prioritizes keeping marijuana out of the hands of children, out of the hands of criminals, and out of other states.
Finally, working in an arena where you are navigating complex issues daily, working alongside teams that are committed to performing with high integrity and superior standards, and engaging with a diverse set of stakeholders to maintain and develop the world’s first regulatory model for commercial medical and adult-use marijuana is a once-in-a-lifetime public-service career opportunity.