Meet Colorado’s New Single-Issue Voters: The Cannabis Community

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The political rise of Colorado’s cannabis industry is, in essence, the story of Garrett Hause’s alfalfa farm.

Mr. Hause, a broad-shouldered, 25-year-old horticulturist who tills his family’s land in the shadow of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, said he was never particularly interested in politics — that is, until voters legalized cannabis in 2012. He started familiarizing himself with the stringent state regulations that govern the industry. He and a friend then created Elation Cannabis Company, which uses a section of the family’s soil to grow hemp.

One afternoon last week, ahead of Tuesday’s primary in the Colorado governor’s race, Mr. Hause hosted one of the leading Democratic candidates, Representative Jared Polis, and reflected on his journey from political ambivalence to activism. As his grandmother passed out her signature peanut butter sugar cookies and Mr. Polis toured the facilities, Mr. Hause said that marijuana had become a political “entry point” for him and his friends, much like issues such as net neutrality and gay rights had been to other young people.

“I’ve never been really political, but now that it’s affecting me personally I’ve had to pay more attention,” Mr. Hause said.

For farmers like Mr. Hause and leaders of the ever-bigger cannabis industry nationwide, the next step in the legalization movement is achieving sustained electoral power, and many see their biggest opportunity as the governor’s race and several down-ballot races in a state where marijuana policy has taken center stage.

In the 2018 midterm elections, industry leaders are hoping that the spread of marijuana legalization will lead to the birth of a new single-issue voter: People who, like some Medicare recipients or gun owners, are motivated to cast ballots based on the benefits they have received or fears about any government rollback of access.

This emerging voting bloc not only includes typical cannabis consumers, but also people like Lily Lucas, a 30-year-old who does human resources for cannabis companies across the country, and Alena Rodriguez, a self-proclaimed “medical refugee.” Ms. Rodriguez moved from Florida to Colorado for better access to medical marijuana, which she uses to relieve gastrointestinal pain caused by a 2009 surgery.

Marijuana legalization is also a major issue for farmers like those in Lafayette, and for suburban couples like Scott and Michelle Walker, two former Texas Republicans who moved to Colorado so their 10-year-old son, who suffers from severe autism, could have access to medical marijuana.

The Walkers are now supporting Mr. Polis — an openly gay liberal who backs a national single-payer health care system — because he’s the most vocally pro-cannabis candidate in the governor’s race.

“My son’s life is a singular voting issue for me,” Ms. Walker said. “Either you want my son to live or you want my son to die.”

Peter Marcus, a spokesman for a cannabis dispensary group in Boulder, Denver, and Aurora, said “we didn’t just plant cannabis” when legalization was passed, but also “local roots.”

“We embedded ourselves in these communities,” Mr. Marcus said. “We’ve led community engagement efforts as an industry.”

Kevin Gallagher, the executive director of the Cannabis Business Alliance, added, “People are motivated by survival.”

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Garrett Hause, center, with Mr. Polis on the Hause’s family farm in Colorado.CreditRyan David Brown for The New York Times

Industry advocates estimate that about 40,000 Coloradans work directly in the state’s cannabis industry. That translates to many thousands of potential voters who, like Mr. Hause, have livelihoods dependent on the future of the industry. (There are more than 3.8 million registered voters in Colorado, according to state statistics.) In just six years, cannabis has gone from a drug of choice for black market growers to the center of an increasingly professionalized conglomerate, complete with governmental lobbyists, high-paid consultants and a supporter list that features one-time adversaries like former House Speaker John Boehner.

More than 25 states and the District of Columbia currently have laws broadly legalizing or decriminalizing some form of marijuana, though only nine of those, including Washington D.C., have adopted laws that allow for use of legal recreational marijuana, according to NORML, a nonprofit focused on changing public opinion around cannabis law.

A test case for the industry’s political muscle will be the campaign of Mr. Polis, a Boulder congressman who is running for governor as an unabashed supporter of the cannabis community. He tours cannabis testing laboratories with the ease of someone who could be a budtender himself, and signals to marijuana business owners that, if elected, he would ease the bureaucracy that many view as overly burdensome.

Before his career in politics, Mr. Polis grew wealthy discovering untapped markets for his family’s greeting-card business and an online floristry, and he has brought a similar entrepreneurial approach to the governor’s race printing campaign literature on hemp paper, spelling out his name with marijuana leaves on another flyer, and hiring a full-time “cannabis outreach coordinator” to tend to the industry’s concerns.

“Other politicians must realize that this is a winning issue for candidates to run on,” Mr. Polis said in an interview. He added that he wanted to “open the door for other candidates to welcome the support of the cannabis industry who may keep them at arms length today.”

Mr. Polis, one of the founding heads of Congressional Cannabis Caucus on Capitol Hill, is the only Colorado candidate for governor in either party who supported marijuana legalization in 2012; his rivals have offered mostly reserved praise for the industry. Mr. Polis’s main Democratic opponent, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy, once said the “jury is out” on the industry, and has largely shied away from making cannabis-related issues a campaign feature. The leading Republican candidate, state treasurer Walker Stapleton, has said repealing legalization was not a “realistic option,” but that he felt the industry needed “better guardrails.”

Some members of the state’s marijuana industry see Mr. Polis’s fate in Tuesday’s primary as intimately vital to their own. Victory could lead to greater respect among lawmakers, they say — the dawn of a new, THC-infused day.

“If Jared Polis doesn’t win the primary, I’ll be pretty disappointed in the cannabis community,” said Christian Sederberg, a lawyer and one of the longtime figures of state’s pro-legalization movement. “If this community stands up and supports him with the kind of support that he’s given us, then he will win. Period.”

Nationally, advocacy groups like HeadCount, NORML, and Marijuana Majority have long attempted to organize cannabis consumers as an electoral force, but November’s elections have intensified those efforts. HeadCount, the voter engagement organization that has registered hundreds of thousands of concertgoers since 2004, recently announced its “Cannabis Voter Project,” which aims to “educate Americans about how voting can impact cannabis policy,” according to the group’s website.

In Colorado, which has led the country in regulating the legal sale of recreational and medical marijuana, legalization has sought to transform the “stoner” stereotype of cannabis users (one of the fastest growing consumer markets currently are mothers interested in “micro-doses” of plant’s psychoactive effects). But across the country, in regions where cannabis reform once seemed unthinkable, members of both parties are beginning to integrate it into their platforms.

“We support a change in the law to make it a civil, and not a criminal, offense for legal adults only to possess one ounce or less of marijuana for personal use, punishable by a fine of up to $100, but without jail time,” reads a new plank of the Texas Republican Party, just approved in recent weeks.

Still, the industry has experienced some setbacks. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, recently vetoed three pieces of cannabis-related legislation, which would have, among other things, allowed dispensaries to apply for cannabis tasting rooms and allowed medical marijuana for those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.

“It’s time for us to get off our knees and stop begging for politicians to not shut us down,” said Wanda James, a former staff member for Mr. Polis and President Obama who is also the first African-American woman to own a marijuana dispensary in Colorado.

“If you’re going to try and shut us down, we’re going to vote you out,” she said. “That simple.”

By: Astead W. Herndon,  NY Times

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