Getting legalization ‘right’

New coalition for cannabis legalization brings alcohol, tobacco and insurance industries to the table, making some cannabis activists uneasy

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Years ago, when Andrew Freedman was the acting director of cannabis coordination for the state of Colorado, he was having conversations with businesses and policy makers at the federal level about how legalization should be approached. And during that time, he noticed a number of voices seemed to be missing from the conversations.

“One of the voices that hadn’t really found its way to the table were these global, national companies who had displayed an interest in being involved in potential federal industry,” Freedman says.

Freedman left his role as Colorado’s cannabis “czar” in 2017, but he took with him the connections he’d made. And in March of this year, he launched the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education and Regulation (CPEAR). It’s a means of helping those disenfranchised by big businesses get a seat at the “table conversation” of cannabis legalization.
“[CPEAR’s] job is to get legalization right,” Freedman says.

However, the stakeholders involved are also some of the biggest corporate names in the alcohol, tobacco and insurance industries, among others; a fact that’s making lobbyists for marijuana users, like those at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), question CPEAR’s motives — and for that matter, all its future campaigns and research findings.

According to its website, CPEAR’s members represent regulated industries, academics, think tanks, public safety officials, medical and mental health professionals, financial services firms and social equity organizations. They will conduct research, publish white papers, inform, educate (and likely eventually lobby) the federal government on everything from policies on public safety to underage cannabis use, tax policy and social-equity in the industry. The aim is to help guide legalization at both state and federal levels.

“We don’t want this to just be an advisory group for the coalition itself. But we want it really to be an advisory group directly for congressmen on the Hill,” Freedman says. It’s meant to be a science-driven resource for lawmakers and large stakeholders, he explains.

During Freedman’s time as cannabis czar, his charge was to create a regulatory framework for cannabis in Colorado. After Amendment 64 passed in 2012 and he was appointed to his post, Freedman organized and operated different state departments to make the legalization process smoother; coordinated complex recreational cannabis regulations; and implemented education outreach throughout the state. Then-Gov. Hickenlooper acknowledged Freedman’s “remarkable job shepherding Colorado through one of the great social experiments of this decade” in 2017, when Freedman left his position at the state.

Since then, he’s helped 17 other state governments do the same. So, when he says he wants to get legalization right, evidence would suggest he really means it. But many in the cannabis industry aren’t so sure that CPEAR’s stakeholders are quite as principled. Among the host of stakeholders that have joined the coalition so far are alcohol giants Molson Coors and Constellation Brands; tobacco giant Altria (Marlboro), as well as the Council of Insurance Agencies and Brokers, the National Association of Convenience Stores and several other global corporations. Their dollars will fund CPEAR’s research, its advocacy efforts, education campaigns and the data, research and white papers coming out of its “Center for Excellence.”

This has grassroots political cannabis activists like Erik Altieri, the executive director of NORML, skeptical.
“Ultimately, the involvement of these types of large corporations in the legal marijuana market was in many ways inevitable, but what’s not inevitable is their influence on what the legalized market looks like,” Altieri says. “We take this as a real sign of the need for advocates and everyday Americans to become even more involved in this debate.”
Altieri points out that such a formal arrival of these companies shows how far the legalization debate has come. He says the question has shifted from “should we legalize?” to “how should we legalize?” And it’s no surprise that such large corporate interests — some of which have spent decades fighting against the legalization of cannabis — are now repositioning to better leverage impending federal legalization.

“Public corporations’ only obligation is to benefit their shareholders,” Altieri says. “And when it becomes clear that certain things can increase the value of their company, they get involved.”

The presence of these companies at the table isn’t inherently a negative, according to Altieri. But, he says, anything CPEAR publishes, promotes or advocates for should be taken with a “heavy dose of salt and skepticism.”

“Our goal is to get legalization right,” Freedman repeats. “We all have a vision in our minds of what that looks like. So this is the critical time for having this conversation about how to get there.”

“It is such a crucial time for deciding what legalization will end up looking like,” agrees Altieri. “We do want to make sure we get it right and we want to make sure that what legalization looks like is more focused on community and the people, and not just a big payday for large corporations.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed members of CPEAR. The story has been updated for accuracy.