Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division chief Laura Harris on being both regulator and mom

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In recent weeks, news broke that Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division head Dan Hartman would be leaving that post in favor of Laura Harris, director of the Liquor and Tobacco Enforcement Division -- a controversial move that prompted plenty of speculation.

Harris took charge of MMED on November 14, and she says, "I'm definitely in the learning stage."

As we've reported, word that Hartman had been reassigned to head the state's Division of Racing Events came shortly after he wrote a pro-MMJ industry letter that was published in a number of cities considering medical marijuana retail bans in the November election. Here's an excerpt from the item published in Steamboat Today on October 13: "If your community bans commercial medical marijuana businesses... you will only remove the regulated medical marijuana distribution model from your community."

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers called Hartman's letter unethical, because his role was to be a neutral regulator, not an industry advocate. Still, Department of Revenue spokesman Mark Couch stressed that the reason for the Hartman-for-Harris swap wasn't punishment for penning the essay, but the desire to "create cross-training opportunities and bench strength."

No question that Harris brings a great deal of experience to the job. "I've been with the department for 28 years," she says. "I graduated from CSU with a business degree and a concentration in accounting. It was my intention to be an auditor or accountant type, and I passed the CPA exam and got my certificate. But what I saw ahead of me was a rather dull life in auditing and tax preparation -- and at the wise old age of 26, I decided I needed to do something a little more interesting."

With that in mind, Harris served as what she calls "a special agent -- a kind of combination of auditor and investigator. It's a position that requires expertise in both disciplines, and I received the opportunity to go to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia... and when I returned, I had that skill for doing tax investigations."

A couple of years later, Harris continues, "I didn't like the direction management was taking us -- that's something that happens to a lot of us at some point in our career. So I decided to leave criminal tax enforcement, and I got an investigator job in liquor enforcement. My expertise was financial investigations, investigations of hidden ownership and focusing on supplier trade-practice violations. I was the division's in-house expert, if you will, on the more complex types of financial investigations.

"Then I got an opportunity to go into management. I was promoted to licensing director in liquor enforcement, and I was able to demonstrate some good instincts. I did that job until 2007, when I was promoted to division director, taking over for then-director Matt Cook. And that leads me to where we are right now." Harris sees the new gig as an "exciting opportunity," in part because she was able to observe as the seeds for MMED were planted and tended by Cook, who oversaw the writing of medical marijuana regulations in Colorado; he's now a private consultant.

"I was able to watch from the sidelines and was very intrigued by the opportunity to begin a new enforcement program," she says. "I didn't know a lot about marijuana other than what the standard police officer would know about the drug itself, because of my work in tobacco enforcement -- the societal effects and the effects on kids. Beyond that, I didn't know much about the whole medicinal side. So that was new information for me."

There's plenty more new data to digest, even though a lot of MMJ regulations have their roots in liquor regs. Right now, Harris says, "I'm learning the internal workings of the division: seeing where we are on a variety of projects, getting to know the staff and finding out where we are in the licensing process." She believes "the folks here are so on it, so informed. I feel like the staff really has matters in hand, but everything's still evolving -- so they have to adapt with each new wrinkle, each new question that comes along. This is an evolving process, and one that's going to take a lot of closer examination. I don't want to make the mistake of assuming I'll know it all a week from now. That's why I'm spending my time listening and observing."

Once she's got a better sense of internal operations, she plans to "reach out a little bit -- tour one of the grows, tour one of the dispensaries." She took a similar tack in her previous post. "I definitely sought input from industry, and I think I have good instincts about how to create a nice balance there without getting too familiar, but without being too withdrawn, either. I don't think it's a good idea to just sit within my four walls and have no outreach at all."

As for her reputation, she concedes that some of the folks she regulated in liquor enforcement "thought of me as a bit aggressive. But the objective is always to mete out the appropriate sanction for the appropriate violation -- and there's always tempering of a sanction for the more minor violations."

She also makes the point that "I have personal concerns, too. I'm a mother of a pre-teen, so I'm concerned about what I think most mothers are concerned about -- the growing number of dispensaries, the growing availability in high schools. I do admit that from a mother's perspective, I have some of those concerns. But I think I'm able to separate 'mother' from 'regulator.'"

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More from our Marijuana archive: "Medical marijuana regulations: Q&A with Matt Cook, the man behind the rules."

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