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Marijuana Policy Project's New National Leader Brings Colorado Roots

Sal Pace started his political push for pot in southern Colorado, but now he's taking it around the country.
Sal Pace started his political push for pot in southern Colorado, but now he's taking it around the country.
Courtesy of Sal Pace
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Starting on the ground floor of Colorado cannabis legalization has created opportunities across the country in all lines of work, particularly for former lawmakers. Just ask Sal Pace. The former state representative and Pueblo county commissioner planted the seeds of marijuana policy at the local and state level before going nationwide as a legalization advocate with the Marijuana Policy Project. The group liked his work so much that Pace was recently made chair of the MPP board of directors.

With the new administration in Washington, D.C., he has high hopes for the plant's chances in Congress, as well as new statewide legalization efforts across the country, particularly the East Coast. To learn more about Pace's plans and how they could affect Colorado's marijuana field, we caught up with the MPP's new leader.

Westword: You wrote an op-ed touting Elizabeth Warren as the cannabis choice last year. What were your thoughts when Biden was elected?

Sal Pace: It was good to see him nominate Harris as VP. Harris was the lead Senate sponsor of the MORE Act, and she's had a pretty strong record of supporting marijuana reform.

During the campaign, Biden's team didn't want to talk about legalization, but they did talk about decriminalization. It wasn't as far as other Democratic candidates; that said, at the tail end of his presidential campaign, it was really stressed among young voters that Biden was the better candidate for marijuana reform. A lot of his closer advisors are good on marijuana reform, and so I think there is an opportunity for marijuana reform to be advanced by the White House via executive order framed in the narrative of criminal justice reform. There is a lot that can be done regarding expungement and pardons and reform around cannabis that I suspect Joe Biden would be comfortable with.

What are groups like the MPP focusing on in 2021 now that we have a different landscape in D.C.?

We've historically been an advocacy organization working state by state to change state laws. The majority of state changes across the country, including Amendment 64, were initiatives advocated by MPP. Now, MPP is more engaged federally than we've ever been, with close partnerships with industry and advocacy groups. We have been bringing together a sizable number of government relations staffers from those groups to find a common vision for a strategy in D.C. at a level that hasn't been done before. These robust discussions have been very good and fruitful to find common objectives between industry and advocacy.

Under my lens, everything starts with descheduling marijuana and ending the War on Drugs, because there are 600,000 people arrested every year for marijuana possession in this country, and 40,000 people incarcerated because of marijuana. And the number-one objective is to end this racist, immoral war on drugs. Now, there are so many other components and parts to this. We could see the Safe Banking Act get enacted ahead of descheduling or the MORE Act. There's a question of whether or not Safe Banking could include [IRS] 280E reform, or some other reforms. If Safe Banking goes through the Senate Banking Committee instead, we'll probably see a more progressive version, with [Senator] Sherrod Brown now the chairman.

There will be a research bill coming that is going to lift a lot of barriers around researching cannabis, and we think that has a good shot. We'll see the MORE Act, too, and I think this year's version will be even better than the last. We have a lot of stakeholders working with [Senator Jerry] Nadler's office and the Senate, so the MORE Act is more comfortable for larger swaths of people.

What issues do you see Democrats focusing on that could become obstacles or points of discussion as cannabis policy reform comes up in Congress?

At the forefront is diversity, equity and inclusion — making sure that legalization happens in a manner that is fair and equitable, and takes into account and addresses the people who were most victimized by the War on Drugs. We may also see issues around labor arise, especially in the Senate Banking Committee. There could be folks advocating for special provisions to be put in that would stop businesses from objecting to their shops being unionized.

Several states are poised to legalize cannabis in 2021. Which of those would impact the cannabis landscape and industry the most?

The state that will have the greatest impact on Colorado is New Mexico, and it looks like New Mexico is in a strong position to legalize. There seems to have been some negotiations to get beyond those hiccups New Mexico had last year. We have lobbyists there, as well as teams in Connecticut, Maryland, Rhode Island, Delaware and Virginia. We also have a very robust lobbying effort for medical marijuana in South Carolina.

So 24 states have a citizen-initiative process, and 26 states don't. We've pretty much worked all the states that have those initiative processes, with a few exceptions. We have strong local advocates in Idaho, but we've primarily taken care of states with the initiative process already. Now we're working on states where we have to do it through the legislature, and a lot of these old East Coast states require that. We're excited about a lot of these efforts, though. In Maryland, it's not about advocates versus prohibitionists, but advocates discussing how to best legalize.

How much would New Mexico's legalization impact southern Colorado's cannabis industry?

I don't think it'll have a huge impact on Pueblo. Maybe five years ago it would have, but not anymore. A lot of tourists don't make it past Trinidad when they're coming to Colorado just [for cannabis]. Cortez, Durango, Trinidad, the San Luis Valley and some other border towns will probably see the impact in their sales, but no more probably than Trinidad. Trinidad is about one-tenth the size of Pueblo, yet does the same amount of sales as Pueblo. So either people in Trinidad consume ten times more than the people of Pueblo, or about 90 percent of those Trinidad sales are for tourists.

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