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Politics and Government

Cannabis lobby gains new clout in Colorado as its spending tripled in the past five years

The marijuana industry is counting on support from Gov. Jared Polis in a key legislative year

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As Colorado’s marijuana industry has grown to top $6 billion in sales in its fifth year of legalization, the cannabis lobby at the Capitol is also growing, in numbers, spending and stature.

This will be a big year for the industry, with marijuana regulations sunsetting and bills vetoed by former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper resurfacing.

Colorado is in the vanguard, one of the first two states to legalize recreational cannabis, with others following suit on medical and recreational marijuana.

Plus, the industry now has a long-time supporter in the governor’s office. Jared Polis advocated legalizing marijuana in Colorado and nationally in his 10 years in Congress.

“We’ve evolved to being a very significant industry in the state of Colorado,” said Christian Sederberg, a founding partner of the Vicente Sederberg law firm that specializes in cannabis and is a lobbyist for the related VS Strategies public affairs firm.

“There’s so much activity every year on significant cannabis-related legislation that we’ve seen significant growth in representation, at least in terms of professional lobbyists down here at the Capitol,” Sederberg said.

A Colorado Sun analysis of state level lobbying spending illustrates the rise of the cannabis lobby since July 2012, with spending more than tripling from fiscal 2013 to more than $955,000 in 2018. Spending in the first seven months of fiscal year 2019, almost $670,000, is almost equal to the sum spent in all of 2017.

That increased spending reflects a national trend. Congressional lobbying spending by the marijuana industry increased to $2.5 million in calendar year 2018 from $80,000 in 2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Meanwhile, Smart Colorado, a group that lobbies for tougher marijuana laws, spent only $346,121 from July 2012 through June 2018.

“It’s daunting,” the nonprofit’s co-founder Diane Carlson said of the influence the cannabis industry wields.

Path to prosperity

Colorado is considered a pioneer in regulating first medical marijuana in 2010, then recreational marijuana that went on sale in 2014. (The sale and consumption of adult-use cannabis was legalized when Colorado voters approved Amendment 64 in 2012.)

Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, joined the legislature in 2013, and he estimates he was one of maybe two lawmakers who publicly supported Amendment 64. He said legalization and regulation actually changed the perception of the drug that is still illegal at the federal level.

“It was almost a nothing-burger for the electorate,” Singer said, based on canvassing his district.

Singer noted that from the start, Colorado enacted tougher regulations, than, say, California. He attributes that in part to a better relationship among cannabis businesses, even though the early days weren’t always sunny.

“You had all these different interests that were fighting each other because they all assumed that they would sort of be king of the hill in California,” Singer said. In Colorado, “if we all didn’t sort of band together on this issue, we weren’t gonna get anywhere. So we needed each other.”

Cannabis plants grow inside RiNo Supply’s cultivation facility near Lafayette on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In addition to different sectors of the industry, Democrats and Republicans also team up on the issue at both the state and federal level, Sederberg said.

“It’s one of the few bipartisan issues I think you see down here,” Sederberg said of the state Capitol.

At the federal level, he cited Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren co-sponsoring a bill last year to override federal cannabis law if a state legalized the substance. The bill didn’t make it to the Senate floor, although both sponsors said it would have passed there.

A big year in Colorado

The Marijuana Industry Group is the top Colorado spender since July 2012 at more than $1 million.

Kristi Kelly, the association’s executive director, said it’s important to have a voice at the Capitol, and that voice comes through lobbyists. But she noted the industry still has fewer lobbyists than other business interests.

“The spending has tripled, but it’s still relatively nominal compared to what other industries are spending,” Kelly said. “And whereas as a lobbyist on another issue in another industry might track a couple of (bills) a year, we’re tracking 30 bills a year, plus.”

Kelly is right about the spending. Companies such as Xcel Energy, Comcast and others spend considerably more than cannabis businesses.

She’s also right about the number of lobbyists. There are about 500 lobbyists overall at the Capitol this year, but only about 30 individuals and firms are registered as representing cannabis-related clients so far. Sederberg’s firm, VS Strategies, tops the list in terms of lobbying revenues, billing $119,500 over the first seven months of the fiscal year.

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

More than 50 individuals or groups have represented marijuana-related businesses since July 2012, a mix of established lobbyists and those new to the business.

Shawn Coleman, a former Polis congressional staffer who specialized in marijuana issues, registered as a Colorado lobbyist in 2013, representing the Drug Policy Alliance and others.

“Lawmakers view lobbyists through a variety of lenses,” Coleman said, “as policy experts, as political experts, as people who just know what’s going on, how to navigate the waters.”

Cindy Sovine Miller began representing cannabis clients in late 2016, even though she’s in her 21st year as a lobbyist.

“I’ve seen cannabis become a real contender in public policy,” she said. “And so its threats have gotten more sophisticated, as has its lobby. You’ve seen the waves of opposition come in and now they’re more sophisticated.”

Last year, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper was part of that opposition. He vetoed three marijuana bills approved by the legislature: adding autism to the list of conditions for which medical marijuana can be recommended, allowing publicly traded companies to invest in cannabis businesses and a measure to create marijuana “tasting rooms.”

Polis, running for governor at the time, criticized the vetoes and said he would have approved the bills.

This year, the autism treatment bill has passed the House, and the Senate approved a bill expanding the list of conditions for which medical marijuana may be recommended to include any debilitating illness for which a doctor might prescribe opioids.

Kelly said another priority is a bill to allow investments in cannabis businesses from out-of-state interests or even publicly traded companies. That would allow businesses greater access to capital.

“We’ve got investors in the public and private sector who have subsequently turned their attention to other places, other states and other countries,” she said.

But the industry is concerned about a measure that would ban the use of e-cigarettes of any kind indoors, and limit outdoor use.

MORE: Colorado is set to ban vaping where smoking is already prohibited, following more than a dozen other states

“It is going to eliminate every option that cannabis consumers have for vaporization indoors, and that’s really the only legal place that they have to consume marijuana because it’s illegal to consume outside,” Sovine Miller said of the Clean Indoor Air Act proposal.

But the biggest item on the agenda is the rewriting of the state’s medical and recreational marijuana regulations, which is on Thursday’s Senate Finance Committee agenda.

Carlson said Smart Colorado has several priorities for those regulations, including potency labeling and pre-approval of products sold based on THC content. She said the organization also would like to see the state do more to reduce recreational marijuana use by 18- to 20-year olds.

Meanwhile, the marijuana industry is hoping to find ways to incorporate ways for visitors to use marijuana legally in either new regulations or a separate hospitality bill, Coleman said.

One area where both Singer and Coleman would like to see improvement is in racial and ethnic diversity of ownership in the cannabis industry.

“The communities that were the most negatively impacted by the war on cannabis have not been the beneficiaries of the piece in any meaningful way from a practical perspective in Colorado,” Coleman said.

Singer said that could be possible by creating a micro-licensing process to allow businesspeople to start out at a smaller scale.

“Policywise I think you’re going to see a lot happen this year,” Singer said.

Sederberg said that’s true of cannabis policy beyond this legislative session.

“It’s not just this weird unique Colorado thing,” he said. “It’s actually relevant in Washington D.C., and in 33 states.”

UPDATED: This story was updated at 9 a.m. on March 13 to reflect changes to the Senate Finance Committee schedule.

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