Colo. offers another model for marijuana industry: Its pot czar
DENVER — Marijuana legalization brought unexpected challenges to Colorado, and it was rarely clear what part of state government was supposed to solve them, or how.
Businesses were selling marijuana-infused, animal-shaped candy attractive to children. Residents growing pot at home were selling it illegally in other states. Growers were applying pesticides to cannabis plants even though none was specifically approved by the federal government for such use.
Enter Andrew Freedman, Colorado’s pot czar, who is bringing together the state’s bureaucracy, marijuana industry, law enforcement community, and public health advocates to fix problems no other state had faced.
Now Freedman, a Tufts University and Harvard Law School grad who still has a 781 cellphone number, is seen as a contender to be one of the three regulators who will oversee the recreational industry in Massachusetts, or advise that group as a paid consultant.
Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado, who appointed Freedman to his current post, called him “probably the most knowledgable person in the United States in terms of how do you create a regulatory framework for recreational marijuana.”
And with four new states — Massachusetts, California, Maine, and Nevada — now grappling with legalization, Hickenlooper said he advised Freedman to offer his help. “There are lots of lessons to be learned, and no one can communicate those lessons more successfully than Andrew can,” he said.
In Colorado, Freedman, 33, has kept a running list of those thorny troubles in black ink on a window in his office since he started the job almost three years ago, adding and subtracting problems as they’re identified and then resolved.
“We see problems. We solve problems. We’re fast-acting. We’re responsive to data as it comes in,” he said.
Freedman became Colorado’s chief marijuana coordinator in January 2014, when retail stores here first started selling it.
One of his early challenges was to help transform the way marijuana was seen in state government, aiding in a cultural shift, he said.
“There were a lot of people in several departments who disagreed with the voters, so at the beginning there was a hesitancy to even come to the table,” he said.
The solution was emphasizing that the will of the people trumps everyone’s personal beliefs. And, according to Freedman, the reticence faded about six months after retail stores first started selling marijuana.
Another challenge: figuring out which agency would be in charge of solving which problem.
In an interview in his Denver office across the street from the state Capitol, Freedman said after almost three years agencies have a good idea of “what their swim lanes are.”
And an overarching difficulty in creating a regulatory framework for a brand new industry: not locking in a bad decision. “There is an enormous amount of responsibility to really think very hard that we’re not making mistakes that we’ll regret for 20 years before we can undo it,” he said.
In a telephone interview, Hickenlooper recalled a slew of troubles with pot-infused edibles.
There was, for instance, no clear way to distinguish a regular piece of candy from a marijuana piece of candy when they were out of the package. And there were instances of consumers overdosing because it wasn’t clear just how much of, say, a brownie was a single dose.
“Andrew was able to persuade the industry that it was in their self interest” to have state government impose new safeguards on edibles, the governor said.
“He didn’t get all the industry, but he got 80 percent of the industry to support it, which was enough to convince the Legislature.”
Freedman’s road to being pot czar was circuitous. After Tufts, he took a year off and traveled the world, teaching English in India, working at a peace camp in Israel, volunteering at a women’s rights center in Thailand.
During law school, he helped out on Hickenlooper’s campaign and, after graduation, was hired as the lieutenant governor’s chief of staff.
Later, he helped manage a statewide ballot campaign about education. And then Hickenlooper’s chief of staff asked Freedman to apply to be the state’s first marijuana czar.
“I was really shocked because I was like, ‘I didn’t weigh in on legalization at all,’ ” he said. “And she was like, ‘Exactly. We need an agnostic in this post.’ ”
Though the industry has bristled at some of the policies that the Hickenlooper administration has pushed, top voices in the legalization community speak highly of Freedman.
Lawyer Christian Sederberg, a founding partner at Colorado’s largest marijuana-focused firm, regularly works with him on big-picture issues and said Freedman’s been “a champion of good government.”
Sederberg said Freedman — and the agenda of Hickenlooper he implements — hasn’t been pro- or anti-industry, but rather focused on making legalization “work in face of all these unique challenges.”
And, Sederberg said, the policy is fundamentally conservative, placing public safety concerns above economic development of the industry. He agrees with that hierarchy, but said it has informed how Hickenlooper and Freedman have worked with the industry.
One of his former bosses says the boyish, bespectacled Freedman has an extra challenge in an already difficult job.
“The biggest challenge Andrew has is he looks about 13 and when people first see him they think, ‘Wait a minute — this guy is running state government regulation of marijuana in Colorado?’ ” said former lieutenant governor Joe Garcia, who served from 2011 through May. “But it doesn’t take long for them to realize he’s a person of substance, he’s smart, and won’t get pushed around.”
So what about some of those smoldering problems?
After Freedman reached a compromise with the industry and state lawmakers, the Colorado Legislature passed a law banning drug-infused edibles in the distinct shape of an animal, fruit, or human.
That, along with other measures — every individual serving of a marijuana candy or cookie must now be imprinted with a warning symbol that includes an exclamation point and the letters THC — is seen as helping to reduce the public health and safety troubles with edibles.
Diversion of home-grown marijuana to the black market remains a problem, but Hickenlooper recently proposed a series of measures to restrict big household operations. Those are expected to be taken up by legislators next year.
And the pesticides? There were lots of meetings, back-and-forth with the industry, an executive order, new rules promulgated, and new lines of authority created.
The state Department of Agriculture now says which pesticides are OK to use on marijuana and the state Department of Revenue now swoops in to destroy cannabis grown with those that are banned.
Colorado had provided a measure of confidence to tokers of a product that was illegal just a few years earlier. And it’s one of several problems now erased from Freedman’s window.