Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, has been a leading voice on how Colorado’s medical and recreational marijuana industries are regulated, carrying most of the most important bills and providing testimony and experts on nearly all of them.
Singer, 36, has represented House District 11 — which also includes northern Boulder County, most of Niwot, Allenspark and parts of Lyons — since 2012. He has undergraduate and master’s degrees in social work from Colorado State University. He is a former board member for the CSU Drug and Alcohol Task Force and the CSU Counseling Center.
He is vice chairman of the House Committee on Local Government and serves on several key committees: Appropriations; Health, Insurance and Environment; Joint Technology; and Public Health Care and Human Services.
The following is a Q&A with Singer about Colorado marijuana issues, from regulations for public use and edibles to the potential ramifications of federal rescheduling:
Q: Why are you the go-to guy on marijuana issues?
A: As someone who rebelled in high school by not using marijuana, I never imagined I would ever be in this position. When Amendment 64 came to the voters there were only two sitting state lawmakers that publicly endorsed the campaign (myself and Republican Sen. Shawn Mitchell).
Since Sen. Mitchell was term-limited, I was the only lawmaker left that publicly endorsed what 54 percent of Coloradans said should be legal. Many members of the legitimate medical marijuana industry didn’t know who else they could trust to create responsible regulations that would not re-criminalize marijuana. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. And since then, my colleagues seem to appreciate my thought process on the subject.
Q: You have a background in social work, how does that inform the legislation?
A: Having worked in child protection as well as substance abuse counseling, I understand how alcohol and drug abuse can hurt people, those they love and our community. But the truth is, if legalizing marijuana is an experiment, our drug war was a failed experiment. We were wasting tax dollars putting people in jail for something that was on par with alcohol. In Colorado, we will now have financial resources to help keep families together, address the root causes of addiction and build better schools (TABOR-willing).
Q: The low-hanging fruit and must-do regulation seems to have been done. What are the big changes ahead?
A: Banking, edible marijuana regulation and convincing our federal government to take marijuana off Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act are three big changes we need to work on. The last one will come with time as more states start to regulate instead of criminalize marijuana. I don’t know if anyone would have predicted that 40 percent of the recreational marijuana market was going to be in an edible form that often looks similar to the candies that children eat.
Also, while Colorado has created cannabis credit cooperatives and a cannabis credit union, the federal government and Federal Reserve have been giving mixed signals at best. If we want to make sure marijuana stays out of the hands of cartels, it cannot continue to be a cash-only business.
Lastly, as marijuana becomes more commonplace, we are going to have to find ways for people to consume it legally outside their home in cannabis clubs that would work similar to bars. People are going to create their own public consumption spots, so I believe it is safer to create some rules for that type of consumption just as we have done with alcohol.
Q: Are you satisfied with where the edibles issues are?
A: I believe that we have exceptionally strong child-proof packaging requirements. Labeling should become more concise and clear so consumers know exactly what they are eating. We also need to make sure that infused candies can be easily identifiable outside the packaging as a marijuana product. Like I say, I want to know the difference between a marijuana cookie and an Oreo cookie just by looking at it. Parents need to safely store their edibles, but kids deserve to know if they are being deceived.
Q: How do you expect the industry to change over the next decade?
A: Just like you see beer breaking off into craft brew and macro-brew, I think you will see the same with marijuana. You will see more artisanal approaches that are creative, and then you will see the Bud and Coors of marijuana start to pop up as well. Eventually, we will see cannabis clubs similar to bars. Most importantly, if all of this is done safely and efficiently, you will see many of the marijuana bans in different cities start to lift. Once people realize that the sky hasn’t fallen and we are getting new tax revenue for critical services, then one of the biggest black market drivers (local prohibition) will fade away.
Q: If Colorado started today on governance, where would you put more initial emphasis than we did and what mistakes should Colorado not repeat?
A: Hindsight may be 20/20 but overall I give the state of Colorado a B-plus for what we accomplished so quickly. Just because we are the first, doesn’t mean we will always be the best. I hope that other states spend more time working on edible issues, banking, and a better public-education campaign that was truly data driven. I would put in a single tax at the point of sale instead of both an excise and sales tax. When lawmakers from around the world ask me what we could do better, the first thing I tell them is to get ahead of their voters. In Colorado we have a limited flexibility in regulating marijuana because it is in our Constitution. I think that came from a well-deserved mistrust of our government officials on marijuana. But this is a situation where if you can put the horse before the cart, you can be much more successful. I’d like to imagine how much better we could have done if we had set up a regulatory framework before marijuana was legalized.
Q: Has pot turned out to be the tax revenue cash cow people thought it would be or has it exceeded expectations? How and why?
A: First of all, I am not sure how anyone could have accurately predicted how much tax revenue marijuana would have added to state coffers. This was previously a black market item worldwide and our legislative analysts were pretty spot on. In the first year, most cities had not yet hopped on board. Boulder did not have its first legal sales until mid-2014 and Aurora did not have have their first sales until the end of 2014. As more city bans are lifted, the closer we will get to the anticipated revenue benchmarks.
Q: Retail and medical sides are regulated differently. Should they be?
A: Absolutely they should be different. There are children under 21 no longer suffering from seizures and many other debilitating diseases that even CNN anchor Dr. Sanjay Gupta is changing his mind on medical marijuana. At the same time it’s a no-brainer to say that a 5-year-old should not be recreationally using.
Q: Why isn’t there enough lab-testing capacity?
A: This is one of the issues that we are still catching up to. We had to set up a robust licensing and tracking system to make sure legal marijuana was not falling into the hands of kids and criminals. Lab testing was not originally the same priority considering Amendment 64 set a very ambitious timeline to get marijuana to market. That said, I think that as we move away from this being a law enforcement issue and more of a product safety issue, testing capacity will ramp up in the next year. I know there are several legislators pushing on this issue this year.
Q: If marijuana is reclassified by the federal government from Schedule I to Schedule II, how do you think that would impact Colorado’s recreational marijuana? How do you think it should be classified?
A: This would potentially change everything from banking issues, to medical research, to child abuse reporting requirements. This would push marijuana even further out of the shadows to a point where more people would be willing to have honest conversations about how to treat this drug. This would be a boon for business and public safety.
Q: What’s your take on the legality of home hash oil production? Should the state address this — actually, can it? The A64 measure says its definition for marijuana “does not include industrial hemp, nor does it include fiber produced from the stalks, oil, or cake made from the seeds of the plant…” The state attorney general (then John Suthers) had said that it is illegal, based on the comma placement.
A: Well, I think that everyone pretty much agrees that people should stop blowing up their homes. I think we can regulate the “how” of hash oil production. There are plenty of safer extraction methods that can be used at home. Cities and counties have plenty of zoning restrictions on numerous processes and products. There are even local ordinances related to noise and smell (Greeley had an odor ordinance). I think we have to be very careful about re-criminalizing marijuana and start educating the public on how to make safer choices around marijuana, including hash oil extraction.
Q: A common complaint about the regulated-like-alcohol aspect of Amendment 64 are the harsher felony criminal penalties for marijuana. Why do they differ?
A: Marijuana is still federally illegal and I think that the state of Colorado wanted to show the federal government that we were serious about enforcing the law. What we did not want was federal agents randomly busting legitimate businesses in Colorado because of a perception of lax enforcement. That said, we need to revisit these kinds of laws. The main reason I wanted to see marijuana legal was to end our racially and economically biased drug laws that wasted taxpayer dollars and didn’t make us any safer. I would like to see a fast-track, record-sealing process for petty marijuana crimes that would now be considered legal actions (such as possession), so people are not stigmatized in a way that hurts them when they are trying to land a job or even just a place to live.
By Joey Bunch - The Denver Post/April 3, 2015
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