The Haymaker: Polis Party Is a Pivot Point in Canna-Politics

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

‘The Haymaker’ is Leafly Deputy Editor Bruce Barcott’s weekly column on cannabis politics and culture.

The invitation said the doors opened at 6pm, but by 6:20 the event space was so packed it took the strength of a rhino to reach the wine bar.

Last night opened a new era: A leading candidate for governor embraced the cannabis industry.

“I’ve been to a lot of cannabis industry fundraisers,” co-host Christian Sederberg told me—or rather, shouted over the din. “This is something different.”

Indeed it was.

Last month Sederberg and law partner Brian Vicente, who co-authored Colorado’s legalization Amendment 64, floated an email asking who’d kick in on a fundraiser for US Rep. Jared Polis, the Boulder Democrat who’s been one of the industry’s most outspoken champions. Polis is running for Colorado governor. Gov. John Hickenlooper, a fellow Democrat, has 18 more months in office but Colorado law limits him to two terms, so the 2018 field is wide open. Polis announced his candidacy in June.

Sederberg and Vicente were deluged with responses. Nearly 150 people replied: We’re in.

We went to Jared: Polis on the mic last night.

So was I. After hopping a flight to Denver, I arrived at the event to find more than 250 donors packing the Vicente Sederberg offices. (The fast-growing cannabis law firm moved into bigger digs recently—in the same Sherman Street building as the state marijuana licensing agency. Allow me to suggest a new company motto: Vicente Sederberg: No Fools We.)

The crowd read like a who’s-who of drug policy reformers and cannabis industry pioneers. Among those deserving the bold-face type treatment: Vicente and Sederberg; former Cannabist editor and documentary film star Ricardo Baca; Simply Pure founder Wanda James; Students for Sensible Drug Policy executive director Betty Aldworth; Dixie Elixirs CEO Tripp Keber; Women Grow co-founder Jane West, who’s now building her own brand of smart cannabis accessories; Jan Cole, founder of Boulder’s gold-standard dispensary The Farm; cannabis consultants and High Times investors Ean Seeb and Kayvan Khalatbari; Drug Policy Alliance senior director Art Way; Marijuana Industry Group chairman Bruce Nassau; former Marijuana Policy Project communications director Mason Tvert, who now runs the Vicente Sederberg-affiliated policy and lobbying shop VS Strategies; the list went on and on. In the beer line I met a Silicon Valley entrepreneur looking to break into the industry. He ponied up a $100 donation just to be in the room.

Here’s the pivot point. Over the past decade, cannabis industry donations have gone mainly to legalization propositions and amendments. Now we’re seeing industry leaders step up to support politicians who’ve supported and defended the industry.

When John Hickenlooper, then Denver’s mayor, opposed legalization in the mid-2000s, Kayvan Khalatbari hounded him around the city wearing a chicken suit. “Chickenlooper” mocked the mayor’s hypocrisy, pointing out that as the co-owner of the Wynkoop Brewing Company, Hickenlooper made his money by selling an intoxicant far more harmful than cannabis. Last night Khalatbari greeted the leading candidate for governor as a business investor and political donor. In legal states, there’s no more need for guerrilla theater.

Embracing Cannabis, Not Just Abiding It

Jared Polis is the first of what I suspect will be a number of statewide candidates who are both supported by the cannabis industry and—this is key—embrace that support. Openly. Proudly.

“We’ve had lukewarm leadership at the state level,” Polis said, referring to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s wincing tolerance and grudging defense of the state’s cannabis industry. “For us to take the industry to the next level, we need a real champion in the governor’s mansion.”

The joint’s jumping for Jared.

Polis described marijuana legalization as “a great success story” last night. As op-ed writers and southern lawmakers paint a portrait of ruin—a Colorado Christian College official actually claimed that legalization has “devastated Colorado” in USA Today this week—Polis has been there to knock down the lies. Here he is back in June, defending his state from a know-nothing attack by US Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana:

Where Hickenlooper adibes the industry, Polis raves about it like a proud papa. “With legalization spreading across other states,” Polis said last night, “the challenge for our next governor is for Colorado to maintain its leadership role in this industry. Because we want those jobs right here in Colorado.”

‘There Will Be Others’

It wasn’t just the size of the crowd and Polis’s unabashed pride in the industry that gave the night the feeling of a turning point. There were other indicators. Jena Griswold, a former member of the Hickenlooper administration, is a 32-year-old rising star in Colorado politics. She’s currently running for Colorado Secretary of State—and she showed up last night to work the room.

I cornered Michael Huttner, the PowerPlant Strategies CEO who organized last night’s event. He was a bit gobsmacked by the crush of donors. “This is the largest political fundraiser in the history of the industry,” he told me. But he didn’t consider it a one-off. “This is the first,” he said. “There will be others.”

Huttner wasn’t just wishing out loud. He’s one of the most politically connected people in the cannabis space. Until recently he headed New York-based Fenton, the nation’s largest social change communications agency. He’s now CEO of Denver-based PowerPlant Strategies, where he works with, among other groups, the New Federalism Fund, the political coalition founded by leading industry companies to defend legal state-regulated cannabis. (Full disclosure: Leafly’s parent company, Privateer Holdings, is a founding member of the New Federalism Fund.)

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Next Up: We’re Looking at You, Gavin

The next candidate likely to embrace the legal cannabis industry: Gavin Newsom, California’s lieutenant governor. Newsom has been out in front of the transition to an all-legal cannabis industry. Like Polis, he’s a next-generation politician ready to move past prohibition and the war on drugs. He’s also a leading candidate to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown.

Who's next? John Morgan. Tick Segerblom. Maybe.

Are there others? Absolutely. John Morgan, who bankrolled the passage of medical marijuana legalization in Florida, is flirting with a run at the governor’s seat. State Sen. Tick Segerblom, the lion of legalization in Nevada, decided not to play sacrificial Democrat in the 2018 race against incumbent Gov. Brian Sandoval—who’s been dubbed “the most popular Republican in America” by Politico—but he could be a strong challenger four years from now.

Governors have been the quiet gatekeepers in the post-2012 era. The chief executives in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska could have stalled or blocked the implementation of legalization initiatives. To their everlasting credit, they did not. Now we’re in a new phase, one in which the governors of legal states may have to forcefully defend their regulated industries against a U.S. Attorney General who seems intent on shutting them down. Now more than ever, governors matter. And the industry’s support matters to the next governors.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the man in the chicken suit. Mason Tvert masterminded the SAFER campaign in the mid-2000s, but it was Kayvan Khalatbari who actually donned SAFER’s Chickenlooper costume. 

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