Jonathan Singer Looks Back on Eight Years of Legislating Marijuana

Attendees celebrate in front of the Colorado State Capitol during the 2014 420 Rally in Civic Center Park.
Attendees celebrate in front of the Colorado State Capitol during the 2014 420 Rally in Civic Center Park.
Kyle Huninghake
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When Colorado voters approved legalizing cannabis in late 2012, state lawmakers had to quickly start brushing up on a formerly taboo topic. One of them, a rookie state representative from Longmont named Jonathan Singer, soon found himself neck-deep in a cannabis conversation that didn't stop for eight years.

By the time Singer was term-limited out at the end of the 2020 legislative session (he lost a recent bid to become a Boulder County commissioner), he'd played a part in creating the foundational laws of the recreational cannabis industry and helped with a long list of marijuana and hemp bills, including measures that opened Colorado's pot business up for new services such as delivery and hospitality. Singer also pushed an amendment to a bill this year that allows the governor to pardon past cannabis offenders — but that doesn't mean Colorado politicians get everything right, something Singer readily admits himself.

Westword: How does it feel to take a break from politics during such a politically unstable time?

Jonathan Singer:

For me, it's a little frustrating, because I'm used to throwing myself in the middle of things. On the other side, it's a little liberating, because I'm kind of a free agent in the short term, and I can do whatever I want. But there's also this element of limbo, because I'm technically a legislator until the end of the year. I wouldn't have done this for eight and a half years for $30,000 a year, getting up at 6 a.m. and going to bed at midnight, unless I loved it. So it'll be a transition to figure out the next step, but it's exciting to think about working on things I really care about and making sure we elect the right people to work on the right issues.

What are you thinking about doing next?

It's funny, because I always ask myself, "What do you want to do in a perfect world?" I'm not desperate for money until January, so I can afford to say no if someone offers me something. I think the one niche I unintentionally carved out for myself is the interaction of drug legalization and child welfare. I don't know if there's a job that does those two things, but there is so much to both of those that needs to be fixed, and there's a ton of crossover with them. In the meantime, I'd like to maximize my talent when it comes to human services. I was a front-line caseworker who went to the legislature and changed the rules of the game for the people who needed it the most. I'd hate to let that knowledge just sit there; I'd rather put it to good use.

If Joe Biden wins the election, I hope there are some ways I can fit in locally with what he's doing to help local and state government create a better agenda for working families and people who are struggling. But who knows? Very few of us get our dream jobs.

Could you see that job being in government again? What about a consulting role, or something in the marijuana sector?

If [Governor Jared] Polis called me tomorrow and asked me to do something like that for his administration, I wouldn't even hesitate. There's a lot in cannabis policy that needs time to work itself out, but you need the right people there, and it's really hard to get this done when it's been moved to the back burner during a global pandemic. Moving into the private consulting world, I have some ambivalence. On one side, I want to make use of knowledge, but I also want to make sure whatever I'm doing is for the greater good, and not just making money. There's nothing wrong with doing both, but I have a problem when money is the only component. As long as it's for the right reasons, I could see myself doing it, but I've also been hit with a lot of political attacks accusing me of being bought and paid for by the cannabis industry. That wasn't true, but there's still part of me that doesn't want to prove that right.

Looking back on your time in the House, what would be the main cannabis bullet points of your legislative work?

I never planned on running for office and creating the first regulated, tax recreational cannabis marketplace in the country, if not the world, but here we are. I got in on the ground floor, so I'd say bullet point number one would be sitting on the committee that created the first taxation and regulation scheme for regulated cannabis. We did it, and I really mean "we," because we had a huge group of people who didn't always agree with each other, but we did it better than anyone else in the country, maybe, up until a year ago.

I always told people that because we were first, almost by definition, that meant we weren't going to be the best. But I'm still blown away by how we were able to move our marketplace out so quickly, thoughtfully and carefully. So that's definitely my number-one bullet point. I'd say my number-two moment would be writing the marijuana tax. I'm proud that we didn't overtax it like some states have, but I'm also super-proud of the fact that we have over $40 million going to our schools and close to the same amount going to human-services programs to help with our addiction crisis. Never in a million years would I have imagined passing a statewide tax at the ballot box and [making] sure a majority of it went to schools and mental health. That's huge.

The third would be — and this is really auspicious today — making sure we have legalized [medical] cannabis for kids in schools who need it. Jack Splitt passed away four years ago, and working with those families to change the hearts of the legislature and help kids who were otherwise stigmatized, even though many of them had life-threatening illnesses. It really helped the kids, but I'll also never forget Chris Holbert, who is now the state House Minority Leader, running over to give me a hug after it passed. He was so excited to tell me about all these kids and their parents who'd testified at the Capitol for Jack's law. The Senate committee members, both Democrat and Republican, stopped what they were doing before voting, stood up and applauded the parents of these kids. You don't see that every day. I call it a West Wing moment. Because when you watch that show, you tell yourself that stuff doesn't really happen. But there are these moments like that, and I was glad to be a part of it.

The last two things would be making sure post-traumatic stress disorder was added to the qualifying list of conditions for medical cannabis, and being able to make sure we were able to finally get a mass pardon for crimes that should've never been crimes, or people who've been convicted of possession of less than two ounces of cannabis. I wish we went further and faster when it came to criminal justice reform and cannabis.

That sort of leads into my next questions. What cannabis issues do you think could've been approached better? Anything you want another crack at?

There are still tons of victims of the drug war out there. People who were good at selling cannabis, but they were good when it was illegal. We know our drug laws disproportionately affect people of color, even though we know cannabis usage is pretty even across all races. Scholarships for schools or loans to start their own businesses were taken away not just from them, but their families. I tell people this around the country: If you do one thing first while legalizing, make sure you wipe the slate clean for people who weren’t hurting anyone else but were literally doing what we are now making legal and profitable. That’s what Illinois did. I want to see the improvement on what we’ve done.

It doesn’t stop with cannabis. We need to look at our drug war as a whole. I hope other places take Denver's lead and decriminalize or legalize mushrooms. I genuinely hope we don’t stop here. [Drug possession] should not be the equivalent of ruining someone’s life, but that’s what we do oftentimes. There are a lot of stones that I would’ve liked to turn over, like broader work on cannabis equity licenses.

In a perfect world, cannabis delivery wouldn’t be up to local control. Whether you’re a sick patient who needs medicine or just someone who’d rather use marijuana delivery instead of Drizly [alcohol delivery], you should be able to do that in our state. I’d like to see a lot more research into the impact of kids and cannabis, and better research into more thoughtful cannabis DUI standards. If we let data be our guide, I think we can continue to build on this template we’ve set for the country. We’re not there yet, but hopefully with a Biden administration, we get something like a cannabis rescheduling.

You mentioned mushrooms. Do you think our state legislature is anywhere close to legalizing those?

Here’s how I think they’re close: They’ll probably follow the same progressions you saw with cannabis, where they thought medical marijuana made sense, and they shouldn’t deny medicine. We’ve seen bipartisan lawmakers pass bills on something called "right to try," which basically allows terminally ill patients to use experimental drugs not yet approved by the FDA. I could see that happening in the world of mushrooms.

What other cannabis issues do you think Colorado has left to tackle?

We have the Institute of Cannabis Research [at CSU-Pueblo]. I want to make sure that institute is on the leading edge of asking questions and finding answers that the federal government is afraid to approach. Whether that’s in cannabis research or mental health research, the big thing is that we’re looking into the efficacy of medical cannabis. If it’s not that effective or dangerous in certain circumstances, then let’s describe that, and then let’s describe where it’s helpful, too.

I want to put the potency debate to bed. If people are saying high-potency marijuana is measurably riskier, then let’s actually measure it. That way, we can let adults and teens use their best judgment based on facts. I would love to see our cannabis industry broadened to the point where we can create a craft side, as well. Colorado is a leader in craft brewing, and part of that is because the regulations back that up. We set those up to help new entrepreneurs, and that would be super-exciting in making sure that Colorado’s cannabis niche is made up of even more people.

The 2019 Healthy Kids Colorado survey showed that dabbing high-potency cannabis concentrate among teens who'd used cannabis within the last thirty days had jumped to over 55.5 percent from 32.5 percent in 2017. How do you prevent youth use while appearing authentic to teens?

This is unfortunate, because of recent budget cuts. But we have to bring more youth to the table, and this is what our state has been doing. Bring the youth from everywhere around the state and talk to them. Ask them why they’re using and what they like about it. Broaden the conversation to ask about their relationships and friendships, their futures and how they’re doing in school. Most kids don’t respond to being feared into things. Don’t just present them with cold, hard facts, but talk about them in the context of how it affects their lives.

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