Talking policy with Terri Robnett

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Terri Robnett, founder and executive director of the Cannabis Patients Alliance.
The Highs and Lows of the Weed Business/Channel 4

sat down to talk with Terri Robnett on the banks of Boulder Creek, and it wasn’t long before a gust of thick, dank cannabis smoke wafted past our noses. She breathed in deeply. “I just love that smell,” she says, a heartfelt smile spreading across her face.

Robnett is the founder and executive director of the Cannabis Patients Alliance, an organization that works to protect and advance the rights of medical marijuana patients by “changing hearts and minds, one conversation at a time.” It is in this capacity that she sits on Boulder’s Marijuana Advisory Panel as it prepares a lengthy list of recommendations to present to City Council at the end of the summer.

After sitting through several meetings, I reached out to Robnett in hopes that she could help me make sense of all that policy work. Laughing, she quotes Otto von Bismarck, “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.”

Robnett has a lot of experience trudging through policy and has been instrumental in passing pieces of legislation at both the state and local level. She worked on Amendment 20, which legalized medical marijuana and, more recently, on Jack’s Law, which allows students to take medical marijuana while at school. In essence, she has been making sausage for decades.

Involvement in all this policy work gives Robnett a unique vantage point as she stands at the fulcrum of the paradigm shift of cannabis, watching as legalization replaces prohibition and challenges long-standing beliefs in the process.

Where others get impatient, she remains composed (although still passionate and fiery in advocating for these issues). She explains to me that over the years she has come to expect incremental changes because she understands how difficult change can be on a personal, let alone governmental, level.

“I try to be sympathetic with people as they reckon with the end of prohibition,” Robnett says. “[During prohibition regulators] were given an impossible task [to try to stop marijuana use] as society got around the laws, time and time again,” she says. “I try to imagine them arresting people [who sold and used marijuana], treating them like criminals and the sort of justifications that must have accompanied that. Then marijuana’s legal status changes and they are left wondering what it was all for. It only makes sense that prohibitionist sentiments linger in some way or another, out of justification for past action or habit.”

The end of prohibition brings the morality of weed into a new era. But she worries that instead of moving beyond that arbitrary moral framework, people are merely replacing it with new types of blame — that cannabis is unsafe or risky business.

Listening to her talk, I was reminded of Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a sociology book that uncovers many logical fallacies common in human cognition. When confronted with a difficult problem requiring effort to answer, we will often substitute it with an easier question and solve that instead, never realizing the substitution. This becomes the troubling source of many of the biases that infect our thinking.

I’m not sure if Robnett sees herself this way, but I see her as a watchdog who points out when policymakers are using flawed logic to defend fear-based policies. I admire the courage this takes, especially because Robnett often stands alone at the table as an advocate for medical patients and home cultivation, without the backing of money or the lobbying power of the retail industry.

Robnett is positioned in what is commonly referred to as the “gray” area of marijuana — the combination of the white, legal market and the black, illicit market. “Gray” suggests home cultivation is not totally legal and, for Robnett, this is the epitome of the residual bias toward cannabis.

“It may not be highly regulated, it may not be taxed, but it is not only legal, but a constitutional right in Colorado,” she says. “There seems to be a push to shut down and limit caregivers and patients, the gray area, as if it was just a bridge from one phase to the next, but it is more than that. It is a patient’s right, and we have to preserve the right to home cultivation.”

Many medical marijuana patients can only get their needs met from caregiver relationships. Whether it’s an issue of access to a particular strain, getting sufficient quantity or ensuring the affordability of the plant, the home cultivation market meets needs that the retail industry cannot. Robnett worries that as industry becomes more regulated, developed and ingrained in the mechanisms of legal marijuana, money will take precedence over what she refers to as love, or the medicinal qualities of a beautiful plant.

“A lot of this will shake out over time,” she says, “but we need to be careful that we don’t go backwards in the process.” 

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.