When Colorado voters legalized recreational marijuana with the passage of Amendment 64 in 2012, current Governor Jared Polis was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. Since then, he has been a firm advocate for sensible cannabis policy at both the state and federal level. In 2017, he was a founding member of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, which was formed with fellow Democrat Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Republicans Dana Rohrabacher of California and Don Young of Alaska.
After he was elected governor in 2018, Jared Polis continued his support for cannabis reform in Colorado, where legal recreational sales began in 2014. Now six years into legalization, the governor joined High Times earlier this month to share the progress made thanks to the state’s enlightened views on marijuana policy.
“Colorado’s cannabis industry is thriving. We’ve driven most of the criminal element out of cannabis. We’ve generated good jobs,” Polis said in a telephone interview. “We’ve increased quality for consumers, generated tax revenue for our schools. It’s really been a great success in Colorado and, frankly, the only thing holding it back from even more success is the federal government getting out of the way.”
The strength of Colorado’s cannabis industry, coupled with the designation of cannabis businesses as essential services permitted to operate during closure orders issued due to the coronavirus outbreak, has insulated the industry from some of the economic fallout of the pandemic. Regulators even tweaked some rules to help dispensaries continue to serve patients and consumers.
“A lot of them were able to do curbside delivery, which they don’t normally do, they only serve on their premise,” noted Polis. “So we really worked with them to make sure that they could really thrive, even during these difficult times across the world.”
Social Equity On Jared Polis’ Docket
While the success of legal cannabis in Colorado has been encouraging, the state’s status as a pioneer in marijuana policy reform means that its early regulations reflect thinking that is now nearly a decade old. With lessons learned both at home and from other states that have legalized pot, Colorado is now revisiting its version of reform. Topping the list is enacting social equity provisions to ensure that all communities, particularly those impacted most severely by the failed War on Drugs, reap the benefits of legalization and a commercial cannabis industry.
To that end, on October 1 Jared Polis granted nearly 3,000 pardons for low-level marijuana convictions that are no longer illegal under state law. But that’s just the beginning of the reforms.
“The pardons are a step because for far too long, the consequences of having a prior conviction for just a small personal amount of cannabis prevented too many people, and disproportionately people of color, from getting loans and leases on a home, and jobs, and mortgages. And it’s time for that to end,” Polis said. “And it needs to happen nationally, but we’re glad to help pave the way in Colorado.”
The pardons granted by the governor covered convictions for possession of up to one ounce of weed. But the law that authorized Jared Polis to issue the pardons allowed him to grant relief for convictions of up to two ounces, leaving some advocates to question the reason for the discrepancy.
“Well, that’s the law of our state,” he noted. “Our law allows one ounce and I certainly would support increasing that to two ounces. If we do increase it to two ounces, of course we would then extend the pardon to people who had two ounces. But currently in Colorado, you can have up to one ounce.”
Next up will be reforming the state’s laws to encourage the development of a legal cannabis industry that reflects the diversity of Colorado’s population. Some of the groundwork for reform, Jared Polis said, has already been accomplished with the passage of a social equity measure approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor in June.
“But there’s a lot more work to do around equity and access to the business side of cannabis,” he said. “Last year, we amended felony disqualifiers by reducing the five and 10-year prohibitions for felons to three years, so if they serve their term they can participate in any industry that they choose. We also established a new license type as part of an accelerator program that allows existing businesses to get an endorsement and provide capital and technical support” to social equity entrepreneurs.
“We also defined social equity eligibility requirements for folks who have never owned a marijuana business or Colorado residence, and either live in a low-income area or have themselves or a member of their family who was arrested on a marijuana offense, to find a way that they can successfully choose to do what they want for a living,” Polis continued. “And that includes working in a legal regulated marijuana or hemp business. They should be able to do that.”
As legal cannabis in Colorado, which includes a hemp industry that is a national leader, continues to evolve, Jared Polis expects reform to continue to expand from state to state and, eventually, at the national level. And he expects his state to continue leading the way.
“Hemp and marijuana are both great opportunities. Colorado is well-positioned for success in both,” he said. We’re “increasing public safety, creating good jobs, and protecting consumers. And so we’re excited to be in the forefront, and we plan to continue to be in the forefront.”