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Insights: How Republicans went to pot in Colorado

September 10, 2017 Updated: September 10, 2017 at 2:12 pm
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photo - Marijuana plants in a "bloom room" at a medical marijuana grow operation in a commercial building in Colorado Springs Tuesday, April 7, 2015. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette
Marijuana plants in a "bloom room" at a medical marijuana grow operation in a commercial building in Colorado Springs Tuesday, April 7, 2015. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

If U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions thinks he can score political points for Republicans by coming after Colorado's pot, then a whole Phish concert would want what he must be smoking.

State Sen. Tim Neville doesn't like pot, not to smoke it or eat it. He didn't vote to legalize it in 2012, but like a handful of lawmakers with some of the most conservative bona fides in the Statehouse, he sees the issue as much more than stoners and Cheetos.

He took a break to talk on the phone on a recent Friday morning, as he and other senators brewed up some suds to serve at the Great American Beer Festival, an annual competition with the House. "Haze," suggesting a thick microscopic brew, is expected to be part of the name of their brew, he said.

Neville and other legislative Republicans have gotten onboard to make sure marijuana is strictly regulated - a given for a tough guy like Neville - but regulated and taxed fairly, like any other business.

Plus it's in the state Constitution now, and Neville said he takes his oath to uphold that document deadly serious.

"It's something all of us have to be involved with now," Neville said.

In Neville's view voters agreed to legalize pot on the condition that it's well-regulated with a focus on keeping it out of the hands of people younger than 21.

"Once the people in (Colorado) said yes, it was up to us to craft the best policies possible," he said.

Now that marijuana is a legal business, it should be treated as fairly as any other legal business.

Neville and fellow Republican Sen. Vicki Marble of Fort Collins drove the conversation and legislation on creating clubs where people could use pot the same way they enjoy beer and booze in bars.

I told you in February they saw it as common sense and good business, not reefer madness. Marble said the state invites tourists, allows them to buy pot, but then designates no place for them to smoke it legally. Most hotels don't allow it in their rooms.

"The one thing we do not want in this state is for people to come on vacation and leave on probation," said Marble, who successfully passed a bill to allow people to seal misdemeanor arrest records for marijuana if what they did was made legal by Amendment 64.

In the last session, Neville linked arms with Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Democrat from Longmont, on a bill to allow pot shops to operate more efficiently. Pretty liberal, Singer has been the chief proponent of reasonable but thorough regulation from the start. The bill passed with bipartisan support in both chambers, including from Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham and Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran. The governor signed it into law in June.

"My feeling is that when businesses operate more efficiently, it's good for everyone," Neville said of knocking down pointless, expensive hurdles for business, a general passion of his. "My real fear is that if we don't allow businesses to operate as an industry, it's just going to backslide into an area we can't control, the gray market or the black market."

Neville isn't the only Republican driving the magic bus.

Out of 23 pot-specific bills in the last session, 19 had bipartisan sponsorship and 18 became law.

Colorado Springs Rep. Bob Gardner joined with Democrat Dan Pabon of Denver on legislation to create pot clubs, after Marble and Neville's bill died in a Senate committee. The House and Senate, in bipartisan fashion, passed different versions of the bill.

On the last night of the session, lawmakers were debating how many people should be allowed to smoke pot on a porch, which would make it a pot club.

Neville said he expects a compromise on pot clubs before the next session begins in January,

Hemp, the non-intoxicating stalk, was a big bipartisan winner this year.

And Sen. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose, is getting in on the hemp game.

He told me at the State Fair that he has 10 acres in hemp, and he's putting in a processing facility. That's putting your money where your bipartisanship is.

He named his operation Paradox Ventures, and Coram hopes to be a Colorado pioneer.

"The voters approved it," Coram said. "Who am I to override that?"

Neither Neville nor Coram are worried about Sessions' saber-rattling on cannabis with federal laws that still criminalize marijuana.

"I'm really not concerned," Coram said at the carnival.

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