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Straight Talk in Ski Country: A Q&A with Aspen’s Cannabis-Friendly Sheriff

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo knows his jurisdiction isn’t much like the rest of the country. It’s an outlier even in Colorado. Aspen, the county seat, is rich, world famous, and home to only about 7,000 people, nearly 95 percent of whom are white. Its culture has long been on the fringe, too: In 1970, Pitkin County was the kind of place where gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson himself could make an outside run for sheriff — and lose by just 31 votes.

“Aspen was always a culture of freaks and weirdos that came here to escape,” DiSalvo told me. “It was where, if you didn’t fit anyplace else, if you came to Aspen you usually were a fit.”

DiSalvo escaped to Aspen from Brooklyn in 1980 and lived nearly five years here before becoming a cop. He spent his days skiing, his evenings driving a bus, and his nights out with friends. “The bus would stop at 10 or 11 o’clock at night, and we would go out until the bars would close,” he recalled. “And the next day it would start all over again.”

He joined the police force — first the Aspen Police, then the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office — largely because it was a steady job. While there, he said, then-Sheriff Bob Braudis helped shape his views on law enforcement, especially with regard to cannabis.

Aspen Sheriff Joe DiSalvo“As long as you weren’t in somebody’s face about it, it was the last thing the police had on their list of things to do,” he said. “Marijuana use behind closed doors is really not a threat to public. If you do this in the privacy of your own home or you’re doing it discreetly, that’s a morality issue, not a law enforcement issue as far as I’m concerned. And if you overuse, this becomes a public safety issue, not a law enforcement issue.”

DiSalvo was a critic of the war on drugs during his 2010 campaign for sheriff, when he took over for Braudis. Two years later, he backed Amendment 64, the Colorado ballot initiative that legalized cannabis for adult use. Uncommon for a law enforcement officer, DiSalvo embraced the fledgling industry. He rallied local community members and educated them on the array of new products. But he also set limits, asking dispensaries not to carry edibles that looked too much like popular candy. He still worries that a handful of horror stories could spoil the whole experiment nationwide.

Last week DiSalvo spoke to Leafly about cannabis policy, including his efforts to engage cannabis businesses, how to police public consumption in a resort town, and his latest effort to crack down on edibles. Here’s an edited transcript of the conversation:

Leafly: You were a big advocate for Colorado’s adult-use legalization measure, Amendment 64. Once it passed, what did you do to prepare for the change?

Sheriff Joe DiSalvo: If you’re a county or town that has legalized marijuana on the horizon, I think you have to be way out in front of some of the pitfalls that have occurred in Colorado. Listen to us and head them off at the pass.

I wanted this to succeed. I thought that if we voted this in and it became kids stumbling around and all the worst of the worst happening, it would be a disaster for the product itself and for legalization. So we started this Valley Marijuana Council. I got our chief stakeholders in this community: our three law enforcement agencies, the hospital, the schools, the Aspen Skiing Company — that’s one of the biggest employers here. I got all these 30 or so people together and I said, “Here it comes, guys, let’s be prepared for it. What can we do to get out ahead of any potential problems?”

The first thing we did, we felt the need to educate the community on what marijuana is today compared to what it was. So we started with a community meeting. Adults only came, and we did a product demonstration. I had every vaporizer I could get my hands on, every drinkable, every edible, smokeable, tincture — all the shit that you and I are real familiar with — and I laid it out on the table. And I had people in that room that I’ve known for 30 years that were smoking pot go, “What is this stuff? I’ve never seen it.” And I said, “This is the stuff you’ve got to look for in your kid’s backpack.”

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Then we went to the kids. We had two psychologists do a brief program on the brain and how it works, and we did a couple of those in high school.

Now, keep in mind our community supports this. I mean, I think we had 75 percent vote in favor of legalization. I work for 17,000 people, that’s the size of my county. This is clearly something they wanted and I knew the answer was going to be yes, so it made my job easier.

Moving forward, what kind of things still need to happen in legal states like Colorado to make existing systems work better?

One of the things I’m working on, I went to a [cannabis-infused] cooking display up in Seattle, and the young lady was talking about how to, for all intents and purposes, reverse or lessen the effects of what we would call an overdose. I was bowled over and pleased, because the hospital in our community has said there’s nothing we can do to reverse this except put people in a dark room and have them ride it out. I found out you can reverse it basically by using it against itself. You’re using terpenes to fight the high.

So now, I’m meeting with our Council and saying we need to get the ER docs to get some CBD or something to reverse this. That’s something that, at least for this moment, I’m really — no pun intended — really high on.

Being a tourist community, another issue we had pop up was, you know how when you go to a hotel you leave your bottle of vodka or whatever in the room? Your maid usually takes it home. Somebody left some chocolates and a maid took them home and gave them to a five-year-old kid, and it was a really bad trip. We had to hit the whole hospitality industry and educate them on what it looks like now.

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On that front, can we talk about edibles? For being so friendly to the cannabis community, you’ve taken a pretty strict stance on them. Why?

I said this and I stand by it: If this is half-assed and it fails, we will be the victim. We will be made fools of. So I think there has to be a lot of responsibility and credibility in this.

One of the first ones that we saw that I really didn’t like were lookalike edible products — things that look like Reese’s or Snickers bars and were packaged as such. We went at the time to local dispensaries and said, “Look, guys, this is probably something we don’t want in this community. Can you remove them from your shelves and replace them?” They did, and they packaged it in a more responsible way. And we thought that was a good start.

We still do have a problem with edible products. I don’t know that we need products that look like cookies and candy when you can swallow a pill and get the same effect. Let’s face it, it’s not wine. We are ingesting this to get high. Wine, you can have a half a glass and go, “Wow, that tasted really good.” I don’t know that we need to make the product look glamorous with drinks and candy and cookies when we can just swallow a pill.

I’ve kind of got an idea — and I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this — that maybe we should ask our dispensaries to sell in pill form only. This might be a radical idea, but I’m not sure it’s all that bad of one.

I see how it might be appealing as a way to discourage underage use, for sure. But some in the industry already feel cannabis is being held to a different standard than other adult products. Alcohol companies make sugary, boozy sodas. The cannabis industry can’t make an infused cookie?

I agree with you. Look, I can’t believe I’m making the argument myself, because I hate regulation, but let’s not make any mistake about it: You’re eating that cookie for one reason, and that’s to get high — not for taste. Why not just take all the attraction out of it for anyone who might not realize what it is and break it down to a pill form? Or smoke or vaporize?

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I guess the stakes are pretty high, and you have to consider the optics, right? If a five year old eats an edible, that’s a national news story.

You’ve hit the nail on the head. Right now it’s really sexy every time someone overdoses on an edible cookie. It punches holes in the whole industry.

On the other hand, you also seem to get that success has the potential to change minds. In terms of conversing with other law enforcement, what kind of arguments do you find work best?

It’s going to mean less people in jail. It’s going to mean we free up cops and do things that are probably more related to people’s safety. And the tax benefit is another plus.

And does that work? Are people persuaded?

The people that are against this or on the fence on this one really don’t mind that people are in jail. I don’t think they mind that we keep arresting people for it. I’ve just not seen that. I do think there are a lot of police officers and police managers who may feel that way but still are not comfortable saying it.

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I’m curious to see if our windfall in Washington and Colorado are going to make states change their minds about this. In Aspen proper, which is the county seat, the city collected over $200,000 in unexpected taxes last year. I think that money should go directly to children’s programs, school education, and mental health programs.

Statewide, we said the first $30-plus million of tax revenue would go toward schools and school programs. Last year in Colorado we collected almost $100 million, and we had to go to a vote to decide what we were going to do with the $66 million that we over-collected. The voters decided to leave that in the state coffers and use it for drug education. So we’re thriving on this.

Now, I realize when it’s a 50-state thing, our revenues will clearly go down. But it should be a signal to people that this is a product people want, and I don’t think it’s a novelty. I think you’re going to see a lot of states realizing that there’s gold in them thar hills, and they’re going to start cashing in.

If you were a sheriff in a less cannabis-friendly jurisdiction, could you replicate what you’re doing in Pitkin County? Or would it be a matter of waiting for voters to come around?

Unfortunately, I think the latter statement is the truer one. But I think I would have to start with trying to change people’s minds by telling them that this activity’s happening whether you support it or not. Just like Nebraska and Wyoming, those states that border us. You can make it illegal, but it’s not going to stop demand for the product. Would you rather have it out in the public and reap tax benefits from it or would you be rather it be forced underground? It’s the same old bullshit story I know you’ve heard a million times that underground is a bad place for this to be.

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It’s the same argument I have to make for a cash business. It is insane that this is a cash business in this country. If we’re collecting almost $7 million in Aspen in cash revenue, guess what we must’ve missed that was not reported? Dispensary owners have to walk to a bank or their car with $20,000 a day in a bag. It’s almost an invitation for a violent crime. I say to dispensary owners, if you are walking to the bank and you’re afraid, call me and I’ll assign a deputy to walk you to the bank.

For naysayers all I can say is that it’s happening. You might as well accept it. Hopefully in 15 or 20 years this will look like ancient history, but it’s here to stay and you’ve got to get your head wrapped around it.

It seems like you fit your jurisdiction really well and the jurisdiction fits you really well. Would you even want a job like yours in a Nebraska or an Oklahoma?

No. And they wouldn’t want me either, and I’m OK with that. We’re not interchangeable parts. I wouldn’t see myself working anywhere else that didn’t have an accepting attitude on this. I couldn’t go to Lincoln, Nebraska, and be the sheriff there and start making arrests. It would be contrary to what I feel like is the best thing for the community.

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Is this a privileged position for you, then? Aspen is rich, it’s largely white, and it’s very liberal. If you talk to other law enforcement officers, do they say, “Yeah, Joe, I’m totally with you, but my community doesn’t see it that way”?

There’s a jurisdiction that’s 40 miles away from mine, and we for years have been polar opposites. But this sheriff and I have a good relationship because of that — we have recognized that we work for different people with different demands. He’s got a more conservative constituency and I have a more liberal constituency, and I think that’s a real important part of this. It makes no sense for me to go to his constituents and try and push my philosophies down their throat. It doesn’t work that way. The constituency drives the sheriff. The sheriff doesn’t drive the constituency.

I’ll tell you, Aspen is getting more conservative. The world is getting conservative. Out of fear, mostly. But if the constituency starts to change and tells me they want something different, it’s time for me to make a decision. They get to call the shots.

Changing gears a bit, what are your thoughts on public consumption or cannabis cafés?

I’m really in favor of cannabis clubs, which our city and state seem to be resisting. I think it’s a good safe way to learn how to use the product in a controlled environment. Example: Somebody buys a 10-mg cookie and eats it and hangs around the lounge for an hour and comes back for another one. I think it’s time for the budtender to say, “Hey, when’s the last time you used this? Do you know what you’re doing? And frankly I can’t give you any more. You’re going to feel fine in another hour.” So I do think that educational component is important, not only for public safety but for the success of the industry.

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How we deal with public consumption is an interesting story. Right now, if you were to visit Aspen, you can’t smoke in your hotel room, you can’t smoke in the street, there is no club — so what do you do? Your house is your only option.

Which seems kind of impossible if you’re a tourist, right? So how does it work in real life?

If you use it in a hotel room, you might get a visit from the manager. If you use it outside, you might see a cop. I think that’s the way the city of Aspen would look at it. Right now, if you’re smoking on the street, you might get a polite reminder that it’s not allowed.

Clubs would probably be the best way for it to go, but if you want to step outside your hotel room and get 20 feet from the door and hit your vape, I don’t know that that should be a problem.

You’re talking about officer discretion, basically?

The discretion’s got to be on the user’s part as well as the enforcer’s part. It’s hardly using good discretion if you’re smoking outside your public school. If you’re at Centurylink, row 12, and you’re smoking, you’re an idiot. But if it’s 11 p.m. and Ben goes out in a dark alley and hits his pipe, that’s discretion on your part, I think.

Once again, I’ve got to clarify that these are ideas I have for my unique community. This will not work in everybody’s community.

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If we look at arrest rates, there’s still this huge racial disparity in cannabis arrests. You’re four times more likely as a black person to be arrested in Oregon for cannabis than if you’re not black. 

That’s unbelievable. I think that’s disgusting no matter how you look at it. That is racism in a clever disguise.

Doesn’t officer discretion leave the door to discrimination wide open?

A black-and-white police officer, somebody who does not use discretion, I think is a dangerous person. “You broke the rules, you pay for it” — that’s black and white. I happen to give my officers every ounce of discretion they want as long as they can give me a rational explanation why they acted that way. Black-and-white usually means a pretty low intelligence level; the gray is where you’ve got to use your brain.

So I do think that police will or should become more discretionary. The race part, like I said, it disgusts me to think we’re using low-level crimes to target certain people. It’s crazy.

Obviously we can’t fully solve that problem in cannabis without addressing it more broadly in society. But what can be done to address this problem that you and I both think is serious?

I would say calling attention to those statistics would be the first thing. I mean, what explanation could the state of Oregon have for those out-of-whack statistics? I think calling attention to the problem is one thing, but changing the way racist people think, that is a bigger question than a small county sheriff like me can answer. That is a huge problem that I can’t get my head wrapped around. I’d love the NAACP to take a stand on that.

You caught my ear at a conference when you said, “Community policing is not a fucking 60-minute commute to get to work.” It feels like this is less about granular policies for you than it is about creating a certain kind of relationship between deputies and civilians. 

When I was in Seattle, I saw a lot of Bernie Sanders stuff, and I was so happy when I heard him mention the same thing. He talked specifically about marijuana. I was so proud of him for bringing that up, and I think Hillary’s an idiot if she doesn’t get on this bandwagon when she comes through Colorado.

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I also heard him mention that community policing means hiring people from your community. I really do think that is an important part of this. And although we all make fun of Andy Griffith, if you look at the basic law enforcement tenets — and I know this sounds stupid — Andy’s got ‘em. You hire local people, integrate them in the community.

I’ve got a thousand-square-mile jurisdiction, almost the size of Rhode Island. I only hire people if you’ve lived here for probably more than 5 years. And you have to live within, I would say, 30 miles from here, or you’re not getting hired by me. I think that’s a real important part of policing that we miss.

Like I said, these philosophies work in a white, affluent, 1-percent-of-1-percent community. So I might be talking out of my ass when I’m talking to a police chief in New York City. But I don’t see why it can’t work.

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. When I was there, there was a predominantly black neighborhood, high crime, lots of housing projects. If you walked through those projects and said, “I want each person in this floor to nominate somebody you think would be a good police officer,” I bet you’d find plenty of black, 20something-year-old kids that are smart cats that want to help. They’re just not getting the opportunities. Have those people be police officers in those communities, and keep those white guys in New Jersey where they belong. That’s my thought on it.