Pubdate: Tue, 26 Jun 2018
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2018 The New York Times Company
Author: Astead W. Herndon


LAFAYETTE, Colo. - The political rise of Colorado's cannabis industry
is, in essence, the story of Garrett Hause's alfalfa farm.

Mr. Hause, a broad-shouldered, 25-year-old horticulturist who tills
his family's land in the shadow of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains,
said he was never particularly interested in politics - that is, until
voters legalized cannabis in 2012. He started familiarizing himself
with the stringent state regulations that govern the industry. He and
a friend then created Elation Cannabis Company, which uses a section
of the family's soil to grow hemp.

One afternoon last week, ahead of Tuesday's primary in the Colorado
governor's race, Mr. Hause hosted one of the leading Democratic
candidates, Representative Jared Polis, and reflected on his journey
from political ambivalence to activism. As his grandmother passed out
her signature peanut butter sugar cookies and Mr. Polis toured the
facilities, Mr. Hause said that marijuana had become a political
"entry point" for him and his friends, much like issues such as net
neutrality and gay rights had been to other young people.

"I've never been really political, but now that it's affecting me
personally I've had to pay more attention," Mr. Hause said.

For farmers like Mr. Hause and leaders of the ever-bigger cannabis
industry nationwide, the next step in the legalization movement is
achieving sustained electoral power, and many see their biggest
opportunity as the governor's race and several down-ballot races in a
state where marijuana policy has taken center stage.

In the 2018 midterm elections, industry leaders are hoping that the
spread of marijuana legalization will lead to the birth of a new
single-issue voter: People who, like some Medicare recipients or gun
owners, are motivated to cast ballots based on the benefits they have
received or fears about any government rollback of access.

This emerging voting bloc not only includes typical cannabis
consumers, but also people like Lily Lucas, a 30-year-old who does
human resources for cannabis companies across the country, and Alena
Rodriguez, a self-proclaimed "medical refugee." Ms. Rodriguez moved
from Florida to Colorado for better access to medical marijuana, which
she uses to relieve gastrointestinal pain caused by a 2009 surgery.

Marijuana legalization is also a major issue for farmers like those in
Lafayette, and for suburban couples like Scott and Michelle Walker,
two former Texas Republicans who moved to Colorado so their
10-year-old son, who suffers from severe autism, could have access to
medical marijuana.

The Walkers are now supporting Mr. Polis - an openly gay liberal who
backs a national single-payer health care system - because he's the
most vocally pro-cannabis candidate in the governor's race.

"My son's life is a singular voting issue for me," Ms. Walker said.
"Either you want my son to live or you want my son to die."

Peter Marcus, a spokesman for a cannabis dispensary group in Boulder,
Denver, and Aurora, said "we didn't just plant cannabis" when
legalization was passed, but also "local roots."

"We embedded ourselves in these communities," Mr. Marcus said. "We've
led community engagement efforts as an industry."

Kevin Gallagher, the executive director of the Cannabis Business
Alliance, added, "People are motivated by survival."

Industry advocates estimate that about 40,000 Coloradans work directly
in the state's cannabis industry. That translates to many thousands of
potential voters who, like Mr. Hause, have livelihoods dependent on
the future of the industry. (There are more than 3.8 million
registered voters in Colorado, according to state statistics.) In just
six years, cannabis has gone from a drug of choice for black market
growers to the center of an increasingly professionalized
conglomerate, complete with governmental lobbyists, high-paid
consultants and a supporter list that features one-time adversaries
like former House Speaker John Boehner.

More than 25 states and the District of Columbia currently have laws
broadly legalizing or decriminalizing some form of marijuana, though
only nine of those, including Washington D.C., have adopted laws that
allow for use of legal recreational marijuana, according to NORML, a
nonprofit focused on changing public opinion around cannabis law.

A test case for the industry's political muscle will be the campaign
of Mr. Polis, a Boulder congressman who is running for governor as an
unabashed supporter of the cannabis community. He tours cannabis
testing laboratories with the ease of someone who could be a budtender
himself, and signals to marijuana business owners that, if elected, he
would ease the bureaucracy that many view as overly burdensome.

Before his career in politics, Mr. Polis grew wealthy discovering
untapped markets for his family's greeting-card business and an online
floristry, and he has brought a similar entrepreneurial approach to
the governor's race printing campaign literature on hemp paper,
spelling out his name with marijuana leaves on another flyer, and
hiring a full-time "cannabis outreach coordinator" to tend to the
industry's concerns.

"Other politicians must realize that this is a winning issue for
candidates to run on," Mr. Polis said in an interview. He added that
he wanted to "open the door for other candidates to welcome the
support of the cannabis industry who may keep them at arms length today."

Mr. Polis, one of the founding heads of Congressional Cannabis Caucus
on Capitol Hill, is the only Colorado candidate for governor in either
party who supported marijuana legalization in 2012; his rivals have
offered mostly reserved praise for the industry. Mr. Polis's main
Democratic opponent, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy, once said
the "jury is out" on the industry, and has largely shied away from
making cannabis-related issues a campaign feature. The leading
Republican candidate, state treasurer Walker Stapleton, has said
repealing legalization was not a "realistic option," but that he felt
the industry needed "better guardrails."

Some members of the state's marijuana industry see Mr. Polis's fate in
Tuesday's primary as intimately vital to their own. Victory could lead
to greater respect among lawmakers, they say - the dawn of a new,
THC-infused day.

"If Jared Polis doesn't win the primary, I'll be pretty disappointed
in the cannabis community," said Christian Sederberg, a lawyer and one
of the longtime figures of state's pro-legalization movement. "If this
community stands up and supports him with the kind of support that
he's given us, then he will win. Period."

Nationally, advocacy groups like HeadCount, NORML, and Marijuana
Majority have long attempted to organize cannabis consumers as an
electoral force, but November's elections have intensified those
efforts. HeadCount, the voter engagement organization that has
registered hundreds of thousands of concertgoers since 2004, recently
announced its "Cannabis Voter Project," which aims to "educate
Americans about how voting can impact cannabis policy," according to
the group's website.

In Colorado, which has led the country in regulating the legal sale of
recreational and medical marijuana, legalization has sought to
transform the "stoner" stereotype of cannabis users (one of the
fastest growing consumer markets currently are mothers interested in
"micro-doses" of plant's psychoactive effects). But across the
country, in regions where cannabis reform once seemed unthinkable,
members of both parties are beginning to integrate it into their platforms.

"We support a change in the law to make it a civil, and not a
criminal, offense for legal adults only to possess one ounce or less
of marijuana for personal use, punishable by a fine of up to $100, but
without jail time," reads a new plank of the Texas Republican Party,
just approved in recent weeks.

Still, the industry has experienced some setbacks. Colorado Gov. John
Hickenlooper, a Democrat, recently vetoed three pieces of
cannabis-related legislation, which would have, among other things,
allowed dispensaries to apply for cannabis tasting rooms and allowed
medical marijuana for those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.

"It's time for us to get off our knees and stop begging for
politicians to not shut us down," said Wanda James, a former staff
member for Mr. Polis and President Obama who is also the first
African-American woman to own a marijuana dispensary in Colorado.

"If you're going to try and shut us down, we're going to vote you
out," she said. "That simple."