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Politics and Government

Meet America’s first pot governor, Colorado’s Jared Polis

The governor-elect takes office at a significant moment in Colorado for the cannabis industry.

Gov.-elect Jared Polis takes the oath of office Tuesday at the Colorado Capitol. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Jared Polis takes office Tuesday as Colorado’s new chief executive — and America’s first pot governor.

The Democrat’s long-standing support for legal marijuana, his embrace of the industry as a core part of his campaign agenda and his unique strategy to court cannabis voters in the 2018 election make him the nation’s most pot-friendly politician.

“There is no one that even comes close in my mind to Gov.-elect Polis,” said Christian Sederberg, a prominent cannabis-industry attorney based in Denver.

And the title is far more than a moniker. The governor-elect grabs the state’s reins at a significant moment for the cannabis industry — five years after recreational-marijuana sales began in Colorado and just as the regulations supporting the industry face a legislative review.

The cannabis industry expects Polis to champion their cause, sign legislation that his predecessor vetoed and help the industry reach mainstream status just as legalization spreads to more states and Canada.

“We made no secret of the fact that we supported Gov.-elect Polis mostly because he has been a vocal proponent at the local, state and national levels for our industry — since before it was an industry,” said Dean Heizer, the executive director and chief legal strategist at LivWell Enlightened Health, a prominent marijuana-dispensary chain.

“He doesn’t want to go slowly about pot at all”

Polis, a former five-term Boulder congressman, proposed legislation to help the medical marijuana industry in 2011, and in 2013, just months after Colorado voters approved Amendment 64 to allow recreational sales, he introduced legislation to legalize marijuana at the federal level.  

In the 2018 election, Polis held fundraisers with the marijuana industry, met with advocates to develop a cannabis platform and toured hemp-research facilities on the campaign trail.

His campaign also launched a first-of-its-kind effort — as The Colorado Sun reported in November — to target industry employees with tailored messages, hired a cannabis outreach director and worked with dispensaries to distribute his campaign literature.

Polis came under fire from his opponent for his embrace of the marijuana industry in the final gubernatorial debate. Republican Walker Stapleton suggested Polis supported “expanding recreational drugs.” Polis dismissed the accusation and said he’s never smoked marijuana.

Gov. John Hickenlooper vetoed three marijuana-related bills in his final year in office. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The kinship between Polis and the industry represents a departure from outgoing Gov. John Hickenlooper and most other politicians who have kept the industry at arm’s-length.

In his final year, Hickenlooper vetoed three marijuana bills that established dispensary “tasting rooms,” eased requirements on outside investment in cannabis businesses and allowed people with autism to access medical marijuana. He expressed concern about marijuana’s impacts on impaired driving and brain development, as well as a possible crackdown by federal authorities.

“One of those vetoes was because we had it on fairly good authority that (then-)Attorney General (Jeff) Sessions would come in and make examples of parts of the industry, and we thought that was bad for everybody,” Hickenlooper told The Sun in a recent interview.

On the regulatory side, the cannabis advocates believed Hickenlooper’s administration made it tougher to do business, rather than helping to facilitate a burgeoning industry with an excess of $1 billion in sales in 2018.

“What do we expect out of Jared as the next governor of Colorado is obviously to have a more open mind to some of the issues that normalize the industry,” said Peter Marcus, a spokesman for Terrapin Care Station, a dispensary chain. Even though Hickenlooper “didn’t do anything to stop the cannabis industry from establishing roots in Colorado, he wasn’t necessarily helpful in continuing to normalize the industry from a business standpoint.”

Within hours of the final veto in June, Polis issued a statement saying he would sign all three, which he called “thoughtful bipartisan bills to help Coloradans with autism and grow our economy.”

Hickenlooper acknowledges that Polis will take a different approach. “He doesn’t want to go slowly about pot at all,” the term-limited governor said in the interview. “I’m not saying it’s wrong, it just different. We thought at the beginning we should go more cautiously. He wants to go fast.”

Industrial hemp grows on a farm in Montrose County, where there are about 31 registered growers cultivating the cousin to marijuana in 50 fields.(William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The industry looks to Polis to move it forward

Cannabis advocates hope to move quickly, too. Marijuana is expected to be one of the top issues in the legislative session that started Friday. And state lawmakers plan to reintroduce the bills that Hickenlooper vetoed and send them to Polis for his signature.

The discussion about whether to allow a pilot program for delivery of marijuana also is expected to return after the bill failed in the Republican-led Senate in 2018.

The bigger issue is what is known as a “sunset review” of the state’s medical- and recreational-marijuana regulations. The review is designed to make sure the regulations are working, and it provides an opportunity for lawmakers to make significant fixes, if desired.

The industry wants to see the medical- and recreational-marijuana codes combined into one to make them less burdensome. The Hickenlooper administration has recommended the move to lawmakers.

The broader approach to marijuana policy is where advocates hope Polis makes the largest difference. The industry wants to see cannabis featured as part of the economic development by the state and treated like any other legal business.

“Polis could make all the difference in allowing the state’s cannabis industry to continue to grow, and ensure it doesn’t fall behind as more states move forward with adult-use cannabis,” said Ean Seeb, a leading advocate for the cannabis industry.

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