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Amendment 64: Denver CEO says legal pot will make it hard to hire, devastate economy

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Since Amendment 64 passed last week, there has already been heated debate about how the measure will affect Colorado residents.

The CEO of a local environmental equipment business says he's sure A64 will make it harder for him to hire people, because they'll be able to legally smoke weed but will still have to pass his drug tests.

Jeffrey Popiel, president and CEO of a Denver-based Geotech, tells us that he opposed Amendment 64 for a variety of reasons, but is most concerned with how it could impact employment at his business.

Since voters passed Colorado's Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol act last week, local politicians and federal officials have been discussing ways to deal with the fact that recreational use of marijuana is now legal in Colorado but is banned at the federal level. And while it remains to be seen how that discrepancy will be resolved, Popiel says he sees another contradiction that he thinks will have a direct and negative effect on his business: Colorado residents can now smoke weed recreationally, but that doesn't mean he can hire them if marijuana shows up in their system at the time of a drug test.

Geotech, which manufactures and sells ground water sampling, monitoring and remediation equipment, works with public municipalities and must maintain its drug tests, he points out.

"If you sell to the federal government or state government, you are required to certify that you have a drug-free workplace -- and so it's still against federal law to smoke pot," he says. "I don't care if people smoke or not. At the end of the day, it doesn't bother me. But the problem with the message that it sends is it's okay and it's legal to smoke pot. [And] if you smoke pot, I still can't hire you, because the THC stays active in your system longer than alcohol."

Popiel, 43, employs about a hundred people. He says that when looking for new employees, he is worried that people who would otherwise be qualified may not be hireble, or that some may not even bother to show up, since he has to make it very clear to potential employees that they can't have marijuana in their system -- even if A64 says they can.

It has already been a problem, he says.

"I'm having trouble hiring people to run our business," he says. "We used to...run ads, bring people in and interview them, go to take a drug test -- because you have to pass a drug test before we hire you -- and people would fail. So then we stared listing, 'Must be able to pass drug test,' in the ad. And then...people don't apply. So now we're not even getting people to apply."

He expects that A64 will only exacerbate this challenge.

"It's going to get even more and more difficult," he says -- because he feels the amendment encourages people to smoke even if doing so would make it harder for them to get jobs.

Continue for more of our interview with Jeffrey Popiel. In response to his concerns, Popiel says he has heard arguments that individuals looking for jobs will know passing a drug test is a requirement and therefore refrain from smoking so they can get hired.

But he's not buying it.

"So you're going to make the choice not to smoke pot? Give me a...break! I mean, c'mon. The message out there for everybody thirty and under is, 'I get to smoke pot!'" he says, adding, "It's devastating to the economy. So are companies going to want to move here to Colorado?... We are already struggling."

Popiel says that people may not understand the realities of this new policy.

"It'll just be harder to find good people, but not everybody smokes pot," he says. "I think it sends the wrong message. People believe that, 'I can smoke pot. Now it's legal.' Well, yeah, but can you continue to have your job?"

And he's not sure there's any way to resolve this problem, he says, noting that he doesn't think the state and the feds could come together to create a productive solution. He says he would hope that state officials would fall back on federal law and reiterate that recreational pot smoking is illegal -- an approach rejected by three Colorado representatives already pushing legislation that would give the state an exemption from federal laws.

Repeating an argument made by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, Popiel says he is concerned about Colorado's reputation.

"When I bring customers in from Korea, Japan, Brazil, China...you're driving around and they're seeing the pot signs, and everybody's like, 'This is stupid!' It's just not a good idea," he says. "How hard of a lesson do we want to learn and how long is it gonna take and how many people have to get hurt?"

Supporters argue that Amendment 64 will be a huge boost to the economy and would only improve tourism in the state. But Popiel doesn't see any advantages -- and is unpleasantly surprised he's now being forced to deal with the situation. "I didn't think it had a shot of passing."

More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: Rachel Maddow links Amendment 64 confusion to end of alcohol prohibition"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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