On Monday, Nov. 6, hundreds of Colorado’s cannabis A-listers (and beyond) filtered into Denver’s Ritz-Carlton hotel. In came cannabis lawyers Brian Vicente and Christian Sederberg, gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo, state congressman Jonathan Singer, powerhouse industry leaders like Pepe Breton and Wanda James, lobbyists like Mason Tvert and Rob Kampia, and on and on.
The invitation to the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP)-sponsored party had said business casual, but most looked fancier than that, dressed to dine on steak under the ballroom’s crystal chandeliers. They were, after all, there to celebrate an important anniversary — it had been five years to the day since Colorado voters said “yes” to Amendment 64 and changed the state’s constitution to allow for the personal use and regulated cultivation and sale of adult-use marijuana.
Also there to commemorate the event was a sparse band of protestors from Denver’s Marijuana Accountability Organization (not to be confused with Smart Approaches to Marijuana’s Marijuana Accountability Project), greeting attendees with hearty chants of, “Where’s your conscious?” followed by pleas to “think of the children!”
When I went to talk to the group, Dr. Karen Randall was eager to field my questions and tell me about all the ways legalization hasn’t been a success, a list that includes what the group sees as correlated increases in homelessness, opioid and meth use, violence, environmental hazards and metal illness. She showed me a picture of a bust of an illegal grow in Pueblo, near where she lived, and looked sincerely worried as she wondered about how all of it would affect the children.
But, rather than detracting from the commemorative event, the protest almost served to complete it. The passing of Amendment 64 and the legalizations that have come since owe to an age-old story of confronting and overcoming numerous and vociferous critics. The night laid out like a living history of how various campaigns and groups were able to do just that, to assuage fear, or redirect it toward logic or, if not that, then at least to drive home the talking points most likely to sway the minds of voters.
At the event, Rob Kampia, MPP founder, recounted his story of being in jail for cultivation, way back in 1989. On Nov. 9 of that year he watched the news as the Berlin Wall fell and, listening to the commentators talk about freedom, he recounted how poignantly he saw the cage around him, how ironic his incarceration suddenly felt. For him, MPP was a project in pursuit of freedom but, when it came time to launch the organization’s first legalization campaigns, freedom just didn’t sell.
What he realized is that each and every one of us had our reasons to be for or against marijuana, but when a friend asked him if he cared why marijuana was legalized, Kampia replied, “No.”
“I care that it’s legalized, no matter the reason, as long as it’s reasonable and ethical,” he told the crowd.
The event offered a rare visualization of the stakeholder networks that created the landscape of legal cannabis, from lobbies to politics to industry, and as speakers and panelists took the stage, the breadth of the spectrum of motivations was elucidated. But also evident was how the motivations have evolved.
Prior to recreational legalization, legal marijuana started with medical justifications, starting with patient’s rights and branching out naturally to home cultivation and then to state-sanctioned caregivers, which became medical dispensaries. From there legalization became an organized effort to label legal marijuana as “safer;” safer than alcohol and safer than an unregulated market.
Of course, there were other reasons Coloradans chose to legalize, notably social justice concerns and arguments for the government’s fiscal responsibility. But no matter how affective these arguments, emotionally or rationally, they don’t do much to change the minds of anti-legalization or middle-of-the-road voters.
Interestingly and unexpectedly, it is the children that the protestors told attendees to think about that have proven most effective in launching new legalization efforts, especially medical, across the country. Republicans once staunchly opposed to legalization are reaching across the aisle to bring medical programs to children with epilepsy. And once these programs are in place, these legislators are much more likely to reach across the aisle again.
“I remember when we first started this, we never would have let a kid anywhere near a microphone to advocate for legal marijuana,” Kampia said in his speech. “But now, it’s moms that are bringing kids to the mics… and it’s working. But while kids (and vets) might be winning it now, it might not be our favorite argument in the future.”
He didn’t say or hint at what the argument might become, but the subtle undercurrent to the MPP anniversary celebration was a return to social justice and fiscal responsibility. As the organization sets its eyes on paving the road to the repeal of federal prohibition, it seems the “why” is starting to matter as much as the “how.”