Motif Interviews Andrew Freedman of Colorado’s Office of Marijuana Coordination

Andrew Freedman, Director of the Governor’s Office of Marijuana Coordination in Colorado, visited Rhode Island recently to confer with local legislators, the governor’s staff and, at one point, the press. He shared his thoughts on the implementation of cannabis legalization and answered some questions:

Mike Ryan: What are the main impacts RI should anticipate if it legalizes marijuana?

Andrew Freedman: The opening will look fairly tame. You shouldn’t expect to see big spikes in youth or adult usage … it’s generally people who were using marijuana in an unregulated system who become people using it in a regulated system. So don’t expect Rhode Island to look massively different the day after legalization. Long term, as commercialization gets up and running, maybe you will see a difference in usage patterns. That depends on how you legalize and how you allow advertising and those sorts of things.

MR: Have you seen a change in usage by youth in Colorado?

AF: The good news is we have not seen growth … in youth usage … And in our health surveys we have also not seen growth in adult usage.

MR: A lot of people point to the added tax revenue as a benefit.

AF: On tax revenue, I’m kind of a wet blanket when it comes to that. We got about 100 million dollars last year from marijuana tax revenue. But it’s a 27 billion dollar state budget. And of those 100 million dollars 40% or so had to go back toward regulation anyway… It paid for regulation, youth outreach, some school construction. Don’t expect to pay teachers. Don’t expect to fix roads. Don’t expect health care costs to come down because of marijuana tax revenue.

I get in some trouble for saying this, because it’s not a trivial amount of money that’s coming in, but it certainly isn’t the reason to create recreational marijuana. I think one of the misperceptions Coloradans had was, ‘OK, when is the marijuana money going to kick in?’ and the answer was, ‘It already has.’

MR: Why does Colorado want to help Rhode Island with these issues?

AF: I’m not here to advocate for legalization in any way. I’m here for good government, basically. When they wrote the statute that created my office, it specifically said part of the mission was to help states on how to implement, not if to implement. The people of Colorado said, ‘If we’re going to do this, it might as well also benefit other states…’ I have no skin in the game if Rhode Island chooses to go down this road, but if they do, I can share what health outreach, public safety and youth prevention lessons we’ve already learned.

MR: How has it helped and how has it hurt in Colorado?

AF: I’m kind of boring on that answer – we just don’t know yet. I think the rollout in Colorado has looked a lot like voters meant it to look like. So you can go into a well-regulated shop. You show ID proving you’re over 21. You select from products that are in standard dosing sizes … it is a very safe, highly regulated industry. The long-term impacts take a lot longer, both for the data to come in and for the market to show what it’s going to do.

MR: Do you take a position on whether it was a good decision or a bad decision?

AF: No. My job is to treat it as something that has happened and get past that debate. It was the vote of the people.

MR: We hear a lot more about Colorado as a model than other legalized states like Oregon, Washington, Alaska, DC. What is it about Colorado that’s making it a better example?

AF: I think that part of what Colorado did right was to get up and running with a supply market that met demand more quickly. We didn’t put production caps on a state level. So there was a faster supply/demand meeting at a reasonable price point.

MR: What would you recommend RI consider if it is to plan for legalization?

AF: If you’re going to set up a highly regulated, licensed system, you have to give it a good chance to succeed. That means you have to shut down your unregulated system. I know that’s a big debate around caregivers right now, that there are a lot of ways to grow in an unlicensed system right now that I would reevaluate. If you were going to take away prohibition of alcohol, you can’t have the shadow alcohol production system of Al Capone and his men existing anymore. I would advocate for a single system. Second, I think we wish we had gotten up and running with a responsible use and youth prevention campaign before we legalized. We used the income from legalization for that. I would take out a loan and start those efforts so that by the time you’re selling your first ounce in Rhode Island, that’s the tone you’ve set. Third I’d start gathering data now, because a lot of the data questions you’re going to have you won’t be able to answer unless you have a solid baseline gathered before legalization starts.

MR: Are you familiar with Governor Raimondo’s proposed budget, which includes a tax on medically grown marijuana, and what do you think of that?

AF: I have heard about it. I haven’t read the bill, I don’t know the specifics of the bill. I can say that we had trouble having a licensed market next to an unlicensed market and anything you can do in advance to get that unregulated aspect highly regulated is probably a good idea. What do we do with the unregulated side in a regulated environment? It’s a worthy conversation.

MR: What do you think about the differentiation between medical and recreational?

AF: I have a lot less trouble with medical and recreational existing side by side. We’re very careful at the governor’s office to do none of this for the tax revenue. Some people say we want to shut down the medical in order to have the recreational. I just think that as long as they are both in highly regulated markets, controlled with an eye toward public safety and public health, that’s an okay thing to have. The problem is if one leans toward an unlicensed market and the other leans toward a licensed market.

MR: Does Colorado allow for people to grow in their homes?

AF: We allow six. And one thing we did not do well is that we allowed people to “help” others, without defining what “help” meant well enough. So if you’re growing for 10 of your friends, that’s a problem. It’s a hard question. I would figure it out with local law enforcement – what creates a bright line that’s clear enough so people on the street know what’s legal and illegal?

MR: How were you selected for this position? I know you have a history advocating for kids programs and education.

AF: Thanks for knowing that. I got asked that question on MSNBC once and it was kind of a wink-nudge question. When they needed someone, I knew the staff and the cabinet really well, I had the legal background, and frankly I hadn’t taken a position on legalization either way. So in this post-legalization world where you have to talk to advocates and opponents, it was important to have a neutral, ‘don’t care anymore, how are we going to protect kids?’ voice.

MR: I read something on your Twitter feed about a ban on animal and human shaped cannabis candies and confections.

AF: The edibles problem is really complex. I see three problems with edibles.

The first is overdosing – edibles don’t kick in for up to 3 hours after consumption, so there’s a lot of education and awareness raising that’s needed (see story on page XX). Especially because it tends to be cannabis-naïve consumers who choose edibles. It seems like a more friendly entry point.

The second is when they get out of their package, people don’t necessarily know what’s in them. So we’re going to individually stamp every edible now.

And then the third one, which is a little more abstract, is that edible marijuana that looks like kids’ candy desensitizes kids the same way that candy cigarettes did for tobacco. So to the extent that we can avoid that, it shouldn’t look like it’s for kids, it shouldn’t look like gummi bears or cartoon characters … The hope is that the industry will respond by saying, “We get it, and we won’t come close to crossing that line.”

MR: So no more gummi bears?

AF: We call it the gummi bear problem.

Overall, Mr. Freedman’s answers were far less Libertarian and much more control-oriented than I expected. His suggestions and advice did shed a new light for me on the governor’s tax changes – if you feel like she’s trying to drive the small medical grower out of business, well, you might be right. And it might be in preparation for this kind of evolution (rather than to throw more of the industry to her cronies, as many previously thought).

Does that make it smart? What do you think?

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