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The legalization of cannabis on the ground floor of Colorado has created opportunities nationwide in all areas of work, especially for former lawmakers. Just ask Sal Pace. The former Pueblo County State Representative and Commissioner planted the seeds of marijuana policy at the local and state levels before serving as a legalization advocate for the Marijuana Policy Project nationwide. The group liked his work so much that Pace was recently named chairman of the MPP board of directors.
With the new administration in Washington, DC, he has high hopes for the work’s chances in Congress as well as new nationwide legalization efforts across the country, particularly on the East Coast. To learn more about Pace’s plans and their impact on Colorado’s marijuana field, we caught up with the new MPP leader.
Westword: You wrote a comment last year promoting Elizabeth Warren as a cannabis choice. What did you think when Biden was elected?
Sal Pace: It was nice to see he named Harris Vice President. Harris was the main sponsor of the MORE Act in the Senate, and she has quite a strong experience supporting marijuana reform.
During the campaign, Biden’s team didn’t want to talk about legalization, but rather decriminalization. It wasn’t as far as other Democratic candidates; Even so, at the end of his presidential campaign, it was really stressed among young voters that Biden was the better candidate for marijuana reform. Many of its close advisers are good at marijuana reform, and so I think the White House has an opportunity to move marijuana reform forward through an executive order set out in the Criminal Justice Reform narrative. There is much work to be done in terms of cannabis designation, pardon, and reform that Joe Biden would be comfortable with.
What are groups like the MPP focusing on in 2021 after we have a different landscape in DC?
In the past we were an advocacy group working state by state to change the laws of the state. Most of the government changes across the country, including Amendment 64, were initiatives that were endorsed by the MPP. Now MPP is more committed than ever at the federal level and has close partnerships with industry and stakeholders. We have brought together a significant number of government relations workers from these groups to find a common vision for a strategy in DC at a level never seen before. These solid discussions were very good and fruitful for finding common goals between industry and advocacy groups.
From my point of view, it all starts with getting rid of marijuana and ending the war on drugs, as 600,000 people are arrested for marijuana possession and 40,000 people jailed for marijuana in this country every year. And the main goal is to end this racist, immoral war on drugs. Now there are so many other components and parts to go with it. We could see the safe banking law go into effect before the layoff plan or the MORE law. The question arises as to whether or not safe banking could include this [IRS] 280E reform or some other reform. If Safe Banking goes through the Senate Banking Committee instead, we’ll likely see a more progressive version with it [Senator] Sherrod Brown now the chairman.
There will be a research bill that will remove many of the barriers to research into cannabis, and we think this has a good chance. We’ll see the MORE Act too, and I think this year’s version will be even better than the last. We have a lot of stakeholders with whom we work [Senator Jerry] Nadler’s office and the Senate, making the MORE act more convenient for larger groups of people.
What issues do Democrats see focused on becoming obstacles or discussion points when cannabis policy reform comes up in Congress?
The focus is on diversity, equity and inclusion – to ensure that legalization is done in a fair and equitable manner, and that it addresses and addresses the people who have been hardest hit by the war on drugs. Work-related issues may also arise, particularly in the Senate Banking Committee. There may be people who would like to see special regulations put in place to prevent companies from objecting to the unionization of their businesses.
Several states stand ready to legalize cannabis in 2021. Which of these would affect the cannabis landscape and industry the most?
The state that will have the greatest impact on Colorado is New Mexico, and it looks like New Mexico is in a strong position to legalize. There seems to have been some negotiation to get over the problems New Mexico had last year. We have lobbyists there and teams in Connecticut, Maryland, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Virginia. We also have very robust medical marijuana lobbying in South Carolina.
So 24 states have a citizens’ initiative process and 26 states do not. With a few exceptions, we have worked on pretty much all states that have these initiative processes. We have strong local lawyers in Idaho, but we’ve already dealt mostly with states with the initiative process. Now we are working on states where we have to do this through the legislature, and a lot of these old east coast states are asking for it. However, we appreciate many of these efforts. Maryland is not about lawyers against prohibitionists, but rather discussing how best to legalize.
How much would New Mexico legalization affect the southern Colorado cannabis industry?
I don’t think it will have much of an impact on pueblo. Maybe five years ago, but not anymore. Many tourists do not make it past Trinidad when they come to Colorado [for cannabis]. Cortez, Durango, Trinidad, the San Luis Valley, and a few other frontier towns are likely to see the impact on their sales, but no more likely than Trinidad. Trinidad is about a tenth the size of Pueblo, but has the same sales as Pueblo. Either the people of Trinidad consume ten times more than the people of Pueblo, or about 90 percent of those sales in Trinidad are for tourists.
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Thomas Mitchell has been writing about everything cannabis-related for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate, and general news en route to publications like the Republic of Arizona, Inman, and Fox Sports. He is currently the cannabis editor for westword.com.