By: Jennifer Knight
Recently a woman I respect and admire, a fully-certified professional addiction counselor and close personal friend, said to me with a sweet sort of earnestness, “Pot causes cancer.” She went on to explain how a joint is more harmful than a cigarette and there are new studies to prove it. And she, bless her altruistic heart, really believed her position on the matter, so I did not argue, but when a desperate call came in from Pam Staley (CannaPam) later that night, making me aware of a real-time effort to recriminalize retail marijuana within the city limits of Pueblo based upon the same sort of misinformation… I had to answer the call.
CannaPam reached out for help, invited your colorful Colorado correspondent, a greenhorn, to attend an emergency meeting of cannabis industry professionals to be held the following night, fourth floor, Rawlings Public Library in Pueblo. Staley’s call was a bonafide emergency outreach, so I swooped down to a more southern part of Colorado and descended upon this king-hell bastard of a story like a dove, post haste.
There was an aggressive forward charge to ban new retail marijuana establishments right away and shut down any existing retail marijuana establishments by October 31, 2017. Leading this charge on the offensive, was a group of signature gathering anti-pot activists called Pueblo For Positive Impact. Another group, an anti-prohibition group called Growing Pueblo’s Future, was on the opposite side of PFPI’s offensive action.
These seemingly good people, the Growing Pueblo’s Future folks, were screaming for Freak Power on the Front Range and they wanted an honest first-person account of science and fiction and full-on fuckery for a watching world – I knew that much was true, so I attended the meeting.
I remember Rich Kwesell of Strawberry Fields asking someone in the back of the room to close the doors so we could begin, which prompted a woman’s voice in the crowd to ask when they would be handing out the special kool-aid. This caused a riotous sort of laughter from the back of the room, and after it dissipated, Mr. Kwesell asked any veterans in the crowd to raise their hand and be acknowledged by the group. He thanked the veterans for their service and chose the first veteran to raise his hand, asking him to move up front. When the man came forward, the entire room stood up to face the flag, hands over hearts, and my eyes were overwhelmed by a flash flood of warm and salty tears. I once again pledged my allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, because I knew there was honest work to be done. And I knew I was the right man for the job at hand, so to speak.
Rich Kwesell, a political activist and business owner in the legitimate and fully regulated cannabis trade, was kind enough to sit down with your colorful Colorado correspondent for more than two hours the following afternoon. We talked Freak Power. We talked cause and responsibility. We talked misinformation with regard to heroin and other opiates, and we discussed the possible proliferation of a more powerful black [weed] market. We also discussed the diligence of his 83 or so employees and the tracking of his product from seed to sale, Amendments 64 and 20, and the internal protocols in place within his operation to ensure a safe, consistent, replicable, and reliable product for the end user, who he truly seemed to care for. We were on the record and we were off the record, but we engaged in an entirely honest sort of discourse, mostly discussing the clear and present danger to his licensing and business operations in southern Colorado.
“In a world of color, black and white sticks out,” he explained with regard to an active canvassing campaign designed to help further the education of voters in Pueblo. And thanks to Mr. Kwesell and the time he spent with me that day, I am now blatantly aware of the minor difference between an informed voter who is pro-marijuana and an informed voter who is anti-prohibition. In other words, are the voters for [cannabis] or are they against [prohibition], and which “it” is more harmful to our culture, to our children, and to the future of society in general – cannabis or the criminalization of cannabis?
Either way, Mr. Kwesell’s current mission, as a publicly recognized member of Growing Pueblo’s Future, is to attract enfranchised denizens of Pueblo, Colorado to a website called Pueblo Votes, where he’s asking them to verify they’re registered to vote… even the ones whom think they’re already registered to vote. He’s asking them to verify it, and he’s asking those voters to show up on November 8, 2016 to fight, so their rights will not be taken away, whether those folks choose to ingest marijuana as private citizens or not.
Your colorful Colorado correspondent reached out on Monday of this week to Chris Lindsey, Senior Legislative Counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. to gain a better grasp on this king-hell bastard of a story, and he returned my desperate call as soon as possible, from the tarmac, preparing for take-off to an undisclosed location somewhere in the central time zone. We scheduled our phone interview for the following morning, 10am (rocky mountain stoner time), two days past my original deadline for Gonzo Today and the Marijuana Free Press.
I also reached out to Dan Corsentino, a former sheriff, for a deeper sort of clarity on the subject…
There was a very public confrontation in May of this year, between peaceful protesters holding handwritten signs on a Pueblo street corner which read “Save My Job” and “My Family Depends On My Job, Don’t Sign” wherein a man known only as Angry Red Shirt Guy, who may or may not have been connected to Pueblo For Positive Impact, became rather aggressive, trying to physically block a video camera and trying to rip a sign from one peaceful protester’s hand, shouting things like, “I’m a personal friend of the sheriff and [heroin] activity didn’t happen before! It was because [marijuana] was legalized! Talk to law enforcement, they will tell you!” and “There are too many studies that show marijuana is a gateway drug!” and “You’re stoned right now, I can tell by your pupils!”
Because I had Mr. Corsentino on the line, I asked him about the alleged connection between heroin and the legalization of marijuana, and his response was this: “Well, I’m a former sheriff in Pueblo, and I was elected sheriff for seventeen years, and I am the former Chief of Police in Fountain Colorado and I’ve been dealing with substance-abusing individuals for at least twenty-five years in the capacity, as an enforcer of laws, and I will tell you, from my experience, from the perspective of a former law enforcement professional, there is no connection between cannabis and heroin or methamphetamine.” He went on to say, “I’ll be very clear and blunt, my belief is that doctors were over-prescribing pharmaceutical medications, and when they started prescribing too much Oxycontin, too much Valium, too many other narcotic derivatives, and the price increased and became inflated, people on the street, and unfortunately many young people, turned to meth and heroin as alternative use.” He went on to say, quite clearly, “There is no evidence to suggest cannabis is a drug which leads to the use of heroin or methamphetamine.”
I brought up a white house commission from the nineties that absolutely debunked the gateway theory and expressed a concern about the prolific present-day usage of the old gateway rhetoric. “Well, we hear it from individuals that want to raise the fear factor, that’s where we hear it, and the science has evolved tremendously since the 1980s and ’90s, and all the medical studies I’ve read firmly suggest the opposite is true.”
I need to cut now, to Chris Lindsey of the Marijuana Policy Project, and get back on track with the story. Where was I? Ah yes, Pueblo City Council. I’ve transcribed the interview with Mr. Lindsey here, almost verbatim:
JFK: Did you have a chance to look over Resolution No. 14575?
MPP: I did… and it’s not unusual to see things like this in various states that have made significant changes to their marijuana policy. Typically where state law may allow certain types of activity, it’s rare, but not unheard of, that a state would then require a community to allow activity. Local regulators or authorities can make restrictions, be it through zoning or other types of regulation and so, what this appears to be, is an effort to get enough signatures, and I guess they did get enough signatures, to qualify a ban within the city limits, I’m presuming. The way I’m reading this is: the city council has the option of adopting the proposed ordinance outright, which I would find troubling, even if it is something that is allowed within their local system. It would be better if this were placed in front of voters, which would be a possibility here. What does happen, and sometimes it happens at the state level sometimes it happens at the local level, is when you get enough signatures to certify something for the ballot, and then your regulatory authority, or your legislature at the state level, has the option of saying oh, you know what, we don’t need to wait for the election, we’ll just go ahead and adopt this now, but that’s very unusual. Typically, they’ll take a pass and just put it on the ballot. The reason I don’t like that approach is, as we’ve seen, particularly in states like Oregon, we have a state law and then there’s a flurry of bans that happen and those bans don’t seem to be driven by the voters, they’re driven by the city council who may or may not actually be following the wishes of their local voters, so that’s the issue that I would have with this, you know, is this really what the voters want? But, based on what you sent me, I can’t tell if there’s a plan on behalf of the city council to adopt it or if they are indeed going to put it in front of voters.
JFK: You know, I’m not sure, but my very next phone call is with Dan Corsentino. He spoke at an emergency meeting of cannabis industry professionals I attended last Wednesday, and so basically, that’s what I’m going to ask him. You know, what can he tell me about this fresh mess from his vantage point?
MPP: I did a little bit of delving this morning and clearly there have been some issues in Pueblo County with respect to illegal grows, and that’s unfortunate, because what this ordinance would do, is go after the people following the rules, you know, this wouldn’t do anything for illegal activity, it would punish the people that are actually doing it in accordance with the law and that’s unfortunate. I hope we don’t see voters making a knee-jerk decision, or have city council making a knee-jerk decision, because of the bad actors who probably wouldn’t change their ways regardless of how the vote looked.
JFK: Angry Red Shirt Guy blamed the cannabis industry for bringing more heroin to town and couldn’t comprehend the notion that OPIOID painkillers are actually synthetic heroin.
MPP: Yeah, and does he understand the states that have adopted medical marijuana actually see fewer incidents of OPIOID overdoses; not more? I think you probably saw a story recently that said, just looking at Medicare data, the states in which people have access to medical marijuana don’t spend as much money on prescriptions that can be replaced with medical marijuana. These old theories, like the gateway myth, are the same kind of prohibitionist claims that have been around for a very long time. Voters don’t buy it anymore and science certainly doesn’t back it up.
JFK: Kwesell turned me on to some recent mainstream news stories making outrageous claims, with caveats of course, like a possible link between the legal cannabis industry and the illegal sex trade in Colorado.
MPP: These things often run their course and then they disappear, because they don’t pass the sniff test. I can assure you, if there really were a sex trade that came from changing marijuana laws, you would hear about it from the Top of the DEA on down…
JFK: I’m beginning to feel like a time traveler, like I’m stuck in Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas during the 1971 District Attorney’s Convention, you know, the “know your dope fiend” scene in the book where the speaker says the marijuana addict refers to the reefer butt as a roach, because it resembles a cockroach… that conference was forty-five years ago… and it makes no good sense that we are still battling this ridiculous mentality… I’m confused…
MPP: Well, I think you’re onto something though, in that these arguments aren’t couched in terms of science, but they are driven by the culture war. That’s what the guy in the red shirt was angry about. It’s not that there was a study released last week that talked about the gateway theory; he doesn’t like the idea that marijuana consumers are enfranchised to some extent now, even in a tightly regulated system where there are sectors and licenses and taxes, even though there are people that are dependent on those jobs, even when there’s revenue going in to pay for schools and roads. He (I’m assuming) has a problem that really goes beyond that, it goes to the fact that you’ve got now, a legitimate [marijuana] busin
And I need to cut back now, to Dan Corsentino, and get on with it. Where was I again? Ah yes, Pueblo City Council…
Knight: Is it possible that city council will simply adopt the ordinance or do you think it will be put in front of the voters?
Corsentino: Well, all indications by the president, Steve Nawrocki, are that the municipality in the city of Pueblo is going to pose a ballot question to the voters and that ballot question is very simple, it basically says, shall there be dispensaries/recreational stores in the city of Pueblo? And that’s either yes or no, to my understanding. If the answer is yes, then the city council will deliberate later, probably after the first of the year, and they will make a determination on the formula, on how those stores are going to be assigned. Case in point, will they be assigned by council districts, where every councilperson including at-large council has one dispensary in their district. Option Two would be, are they assigned by population, and do they pro-rate out the population and make a determination as to where those dispensaries would be. Option Three is, do they break the city up into a different dynamic, other than council districts, and place some stores in a zoned area, where they zone specifically an area within the municipality, where only licensed cannabis dispensaries or recreational stores could be. That is unknown, but the first step is obviously the council deciding to put it on the ballot, and in this morning’s paper, the president was very clear that the vote would be left to the citizens of Pueblo.
Mr. Corsentino went on to explain, “I believe [the cannabis industry] is the best regulated industry there is, right now, anywhere. They’re much better regulated than liquor. They’re almost equal to the lottery in the State of Colorado. With the security they have, the video systems, the accountability for any waste of seed or waste of product, the only thing we’re missing in this industry is the banking industry, and the feds need to wake up and alleviate some of those concerns. My position is very strong: cannabis is here to stay and if Pueblo voters decide to opt out [of legalization] they’re really positioning themselves for an extremely myopic perspective on the whole industry as it’s starting to explode nationwide.”
Another important phone call your Colorado correspondent made at some point during this whirlwind of a week-long assignment was to Cliff Black, Senior Defense Partner at Black & Graham in Colorado Springs. I remember sitting at the bar inside my local Denny’s somewhere around breakfast time, drinking a cup of coffee, and staring at the abundance of alcohol I no longer drink. I was overwhelmed by the hypocrisy of my completely acceptable All-American setting, and I was stuck – writer’s block, behind deadline again. I stumbled upon a fine distraction by way of random conversation with the gentleman sitting next to me, a retired football official. I think I may have offered him a sporting story in exchange for an interview and a football game, and I think he agreed to be interviewed and gave me his phone number, but I can’t be too sure. I mean, there was a ton of caffeine in my system and I was under a great deal of pressure at the time. After the stranger left (without paying for my coffee) I still couldn’t bring myself to write, so I packed up the working materials and called Cliff on my way out the door, with no particular place to go.
Cliff talked me down, all the way down to my favorite disc golf course, where I threw a round, a fantastic round, and tried to clear my troubled mind…
“I wish I had more information to give you. One of the problems we have in Colorado is, you know, we have state licensing and we also have local licensing, so basically it’s a dual licensing scheme. I often tell my clients, there are 64 counties and there are about 260 incorporated towns and cities, so there’s about 330 sets of rules for marijuana, and they’re constantly changing, and we will go to a county or a city to find out what’s allowed there. And doing searches online, and even searches for ordinances and stuff like that through companies that supposedly publish all this, sometimes it’s extremely hard to find that information. And we’ll even call city clerks, and the city clerks sometimes don’t even understand the difference between a licensed marijuana business and a patient and a caregiver, or even an adult growing their own. Elbert County is a good example, we were trying to find out what you’re allowed to do there, and they have bans on both medical and recreational licensed businesses, but they don’t have any plant limits for patients and caregivers. So we called the county clerk, and the county clerk was like everything’s banned here. Well, no, you can’t quite ban everything, but a lot of times they don’t know, and finding anything online can be a very difficult task.”
And for the Wisdom? Consult your favorite attorney… I did.
“I dunno Jennifer, but it seems that while society is moving on from marijuana prohibition, not everyone is on board. Some city council members, plus some angry red-shirt guys thrown in, are out there predicting doom. They are as convinced of their beliefs as those of us on the other side of the debate. They are now in the minority, but that doesn’t mean they went away, or aren’t capable of believing myths and doing harm.” – Chris Lindsey