Gov. Hickenlooper vetoes cannabis ‘tasting rooms’ placing him at odds with voters

 Gov. Hickenlooper vetoes cannabis ‘tasting rooms’ placing him at odds with voters

Photo courtesy of 420Smokers

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper rejected the insights of state and local cannabis regulators who have been calling for a bright regulatory line concerning public consumption.

House Bill 1258 — which would have created limited-sales cannabis tasting rooms — was vetoed by Hickenlooper on Monday afternoon, despite significant bipartisan support in the legislature as part of an effort to rein in unregulated consumption clubs.

The Democratic governor’s veto came even as his own Marijuana Enforcement Division highlighted the legislation as an “incremental approach,” logging a neutral stance for the first time on a public consumption bill. Hickenlooper, who has long touted his commitment to compromise, appeared unmoved by the four-year stakeholder process. The bill passed the legislature with 61 votes, including majority support from Democrats and 15 Republicans.

Hickenlooper’s veto ensures continued gray market activity when it comes to public consumption, an odd choice for an administration that has focused heavily on marijuana gray market enforcement. It also ensures that people will continue to smoke cannabis in unregulated indoor clubs, also a strange choice for a governor who has been adamant that public consumption should not include smoking. Hickenlooper’s veto also sets the state back in regulating and curbing drugged driving.

“This was a modest step forward to educate cannabis conumers before they get on the road,” said Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, a sponsor of the bill. “Today’s outcome just proves we need to work harder to show that canabis consumers don’t belong in the shadows.”

Hickenlooper missed a significant educational opportunity. House Bill 1258 required education around safe cannabis consumption and product information. The bill would have targeted consumers at the most important point of contact, where they are consuming. With the governor’s veto, efforts at educating around drugged driving and other cannabis safety topics will remain difficult.

Agencies and groups in the stakeholder process included the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Marijuana Enforcement Division, the Colorado Municipal League, and Colorado Counties, Inc. Critics of the bill also were regularly brought into conversations.

Hickenlooper — who is considering a run for president — is finding himself on the wrong side of growing support for commonsense cannabis regulation. The Denver Post Editorial Board called for cannabis tasting rooms in Colorado, and voters are increasingly backing marijuana legalization as a successful “social experiment.” Just as many politicians learned that standing on the wrong side of gay marriage could be detrimental to their careers, the same is happening with marijuana.

The governor’s veto brings the debate to his successor. Proponents are optimistic that the next governor of Colorado will respect the will of voters, who asked to legalize marijuana with a robust regulatory system. Proponents plan on building off of the historic effort from this year, in which the Colorado Legislature passed the first public cannabis consumption law in the nation.

Hickenlooper has been finding himself more and more on the opposite side of voters when it comes to marijuana. Concerns were raised when Hickenlooper recently told CNN that he is not “ruling out” voters overturning marijuana legalization if data came back showing spikes in crime. Polling suggests that a larger percentage of Colorado voters would back marijuana legalization today compared with when they backed it by 55 percent in 2012.

The cannabis issue is likely to play in the mid-terms, and then again in the presidential election in 2020. Mainstream national media outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post are examining how the marijuana issue will play big in the upcoming elections. If Hickenlooper is serious about running for president, he could find himself struggling to woo voters in a Democratic primary and general election if he is on the wrong side of a growing national wedge issue.

Cannabis regulatory experts close to Hickenlooper also called for a tasting rooms model, underscored in a column by Lewis Koski with marijuana regulatory consulting firm Freedman and Koski. Koski is the former director of the Marijuana Enforcement Division, and Andrew Freedman is Hickenlooper’s former director of marijuana coordination.

Hickenlooper has repeatedly called for stringent cannabis regulations in order to ensure a successful “experiment.” But when told by state and local cannabis regulators that a consumption model could be helpful, Hickenlooper rejected their insights.

“What we were trying to do with House Bill 1258 was offer certainty on the issue of public cannabis consumption so that regulators could have a bright line when it comes to enforcement,” said Chris Woods, the owner of Terrapin Care Station, a Boulder-based national cannabis company that led a support coalition for the bill. “In its wisdom, the Colorado Legislature sought to close a significant gap in regulation. It’s unfortunate that the governor chose not to offer another regulatory tool to state and local regulators. This fight is not over.”

The problem is a growing list of unlicensed, unregulated cannabis consumption clubs using loopholes in law to operate facilities in a gray area. Patrons bring unregulated product to smoke in an indoor environment. Regulators pointed to House Bill 1258 as a way to bring these clubs into an enforcement scheme.

House Bill 1258 would have prohibited smoking, instead only allowing the limited consumption of cannabis products that can be vaporized. Single-serving edibles also would have been included in the bill.

The measure also would have curbed a proliferation of cannabis consumption clubs by only allowing existing cannabis businesses to apply for a tasting room endorsement. State fiscal analysts estimated that only 1 percent of cannabis businesses would have participated in the new program. Had Hickenlooper allowed the bill to become law, regulators could have stopped gray market clubs, while also wrapping their heads around slowly figuring out how to create a regulatory scheme for consumption.

Because the measure was entirely local control, communities would have had to opt in to a tasting rooms program, thereby further cutting back on a proliferation of clubs. For this reason, the Colorado Municipal League was neutral on the bill.

In addition to Singer, the bill was sponsored by Reps. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, and Leslie Herod, D-Denver, and by Sens. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, and Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins.

“This bill was a well-crafted and balanced solution to a problem,” Neville said. “It passed with strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. By saying ‘no,’ the governor missed an important opportunity to provide solutions instead of kicking the can down the road.”

Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus served as the Senior Statehouse Reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette where he co-launched ColoradoPolitics.com, covering politics, the governor’s office, the Colorado Legislature, Congress, and federal, state and local governments. He joined in November 2016 from The Durango Herald. The Washington Post twice named Marcus one of the top state-based political and legislative reporters in the nation. He also has won over a dozen awards from the Colorado Press Association. In prior positions, Marcus worked for the Colorado Statesman, a Denver-based political weekly, and The Denver Daily News, a former free daily newspaper in Denver, where he covered City Hall, politics, and had an entertainment column. Before that, Marcus worked for the Longmont Times-Call. An Ithaca College graduate, Marcus studied journalism and creative writing, before moving to Colorado from New York in 2004.

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