MIG helps make marijuana businesses work

Photo courtesy of Mike Elliot
Mike Elliot, Executive Director of the Marijuana Industry Group

Mike Elliott is executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, a trade association for cannabis businesses based in Denver.

He founded joined MIG as the Medical Marijuana Industry Group at a critical moment in the state’s cannabis movement.

The stampede of dispensary openings in Colorado that began in 2009 on the heels of the Obama administration announcement that it wouldn’t prosecute medical marijuana in states where it was legal spawned more than a thousand dispensaries across the state in less than a year, a majority of those in Denver. None were licensed, and the attorney general and law enforcement were ready to ban them all.

“That’s the environment in which my trade association formed,” Elliott told me recently. “We took the philosophy of ‘If we don’t hang together, we’re going to hang separately’ and pooled our resources.” The organization successfully lobbied to pass Colorado HB 10-1284 in June 2010, which created the licensing structure that forced medical marijuana businesses to submit to background checks and financial disclosures.

MIG now represents more than 50 licensed medical and retail marijuana dispensaries, grow facilities, infused products manufacturers, vendors and investors.

“I think with Amendment 64, we’re taking our heads out of the sand,” he says. “We’ve been fighting this war on marijuana for 40 years and spent a trillion dollars for the war on drugs. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world, and after all that, marijuana is still universally available. It’s still in our schools. It’s out of control. We’re not getting tax revenue, and everyone knows it hasn’t worked. The question has been, ‘What is the solution?’” And for right now, he explains, it’s dealing with 500 pages of laws.

“In many ways we’ve gone way, way overboard,” Elliott says. “But that’s OK, because people demand that we take all these public-safety issues very seriously. We’re coming up with good solutions. Business owners are completely transparent.

They’ve given up their lives, and there’s no hiding what they’re doing anymore. If they screw up, it’s not just going out of business. The reality is that they would be living the rest of their life in orange.”

On Feb. 17, the Washington state House voted to ban medical dispensaries and impose new restrictions on medical users. Elliott doesn’t think that will happen here or that medical is in danger of going away in Colorado anytime soon.

“Medical is the roots of this industry — those patients and maintaining those relationships,” he says. “A lot of people would say that medical is just a stepping stone to legalization, but those people forget the fact that there are sick people who do get a great benefit, and businesses want to keep catering to medical mar ijuana patients.”

Elliott says current rules encourage businesses to cater to both markets. Each city can choose whether to allow medical and/or recreational cannabis.

“So you have a community like Colorado Springs, which has allowed medical businesses but banned recreational,” he notes. “How do you make sense of Colorado Springs? It’s good to have medical businesses catering to patients. I don’t see anything big changing anytime soon.” One coming challenge to is codify some rules that differ for each market.

“It could be worse. We created two industries, one for medical and one for recreational,” he says. “There are a lot of similarities that make sense, but when we’re talking about 500 pages of law, there’s an awful lot in there.”

That said, there isn’t much appetite in the legislature for cannabis. “It dominated last year, and we’re in an election cycle. The tone is: ‘Why don’t we let things work and see what the problems are, and when they come up, we’ll address them.’” The most frustrating issue, of course, is lack of access to banking.

“The real reason is that forces outside of Colorado are interfering with this program, and in so doing are disrupting banking relationships, the relationship with merchant-services companies like credit cards, security companies and the armored-car companies,” Elliott says. “They’ve gotten threats from the DEA to drop marijuana businesses or else. We’ve heard, and I tend to believe it’s true, that the DEA is not out there saying they are doing this. But you put those industries together, and it starts looking and feeling that there are folks out there that are try ing to create public-safety issues, that are forcing us to be a cash-only industry that can’t protect itself.”

And, he points out, everybody is calling for banking clarity, including the governor and Denver mayor, who opposed Amendment 64, and the attorney general.

“Everyone wants to fix this problem — pro or against — because this is a public safety issue. This is about saving lives, and it’s also about accountability.”

Speaking of accountability, MIG supported Proposition AA, which placed higher sales and excise taxes at the state level and gave cities and counties the ability to add more, a position that was opposed by some in the cannabis industry but which was approved by 65 percent of Colorado voters last November.

“We ultimately would like to be treated with fairness like other businesses and industries,” Elliott says. “So the taxes, from that perspective, seem too high.”

But there’s more than that going on. “There are a lot of legitimate concerns that people have about keeping it out of schools, doing education prevention and treatment,” he says. “There are public-safety issues, like keeping it from going out of state, and research. All of that needs funding, and it makes sense to have this industry pay for it. We’re going to be partners, and we’re going to use the money that these businesses have been making to invest back into our communities to address issues and to do the job that prohibition never did. Prohibition was a failure, and we’re going to be part of the solution.”

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