Denver marijuana attorney Sean McAllister talks edibles, the MED and federal pot law
Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Summit Daily News, which is a sister publication to Grand Junction Free Press.
Legal marijuana has undeniably changed the social landscape in Colorado and, as more and more eyes are drawn to the nation’s newest industry, it’s rapidly changing the legal landscape.
Enter Sean McAllister, a Denver-based attorney and University of Colorado-Boulder graduate who’s been at the forefront of just about every major marijuana battle. He launched the drug-reform policy organization Sensible Colorado in 2004, nearly three years before the first round of personal caretakers began growing and selling marijuana to medical patients.
By late 2007, when dozens of medical dispensaries were popping up across the state (albeit on somewhat shaky legal grounds), McAllister was co-counsel for the marijuana movement’s landmark lawsuit, a case against the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment he describes as the moment when “the boundaries were really taken off medical marijuana.” He went on to consult state officials and eventually helped draft Amendment 64, the law that took boundaries off marijuana as a whole.
The rest is history in the making. McAllister continues to defend marijuana businesses and stakeholders from every corner of Colorado, although Summit County holds a special place in his practice: He splits time between Denver and Breckenridge, and helped craft the 2009 ballot initiative to legalize pot possession in Breck. Following two recent federal racketeering cases filed against the state and dispensary owners, including a prospective retail store and grow site in Frisco, attorneys like McAllister are nearly on par with pot barons themselves.
The Summit Daily News recently touched base with McAllister at his Denver firm for insight on the state of legal marijuana, the touchy topic of edibles and why federal decriminalization isn’t quite the industry’s only hope for survival.
Summit Daily News: The 400-pound gorilla in the room: Why essentially volunteer to tackle the messy legal side of the cannabis industry?
Sean McAllister: I think the important thing for people to understand is that marijuana is not being regulated like alcohol. It’s being regulated like plutonium. It’s not totally unsurprising, in that this is a totally new industry. We’re bringing a black market product into the legal market.
SDN: Because of that, it seems like marijuana laws change monthly and sometimes even weekly. How do you stay on top of those changes?
SM: I think from the outside it looks like things change every day, but it’s not so complicated that nobody understands the rules. It is just heavily regulated, probably the most heavily regulated industry in the state.
Most of the significant rule changes lately have been around edible products because of the disconnect people had between the medical and retail realm. It sounds like they’re going to keep the status quo right now and I think that’s unfortunate. To the extent those laws are different from medical to recreational, it doesn’t make sense. There’s this byzantine system of tracking cards, and if someone goes to another (medical) dispensary they have to jump through hoops. It’s an example of where the legislature could step in and fix things.
SDN: What’s the worst blow the marijuana industry has faced since the advent of legalization?
SM: I think the real headline grabbers for the year were edibles and concentrates. You had the death of the college kid in Denver who jumped off a balcony, then you had the man who killed his wife after eating edibles, but a lot more was happening in both of those cases than just marijuana.
And I feel like the regulator (new Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division director Lewis Koski) has gotten this right: Instead of banning edibles, they’ve made sure everyone knows a novice user should only take 10 milligrams, if that. This is a public education effort — everyone thinks when you eat a brownie, you should eat the whole brownie, but that’s not how it works with edibles. That’s why you now have edibles split into pieces so you can decide on dosage. You can see it.
SDN: Were you surprised by the almost unexpected popularity of edibles?
SM: I was one of those people who used to laugh at edibles. People smoke marijuana — that’s what they want to do, and that’s because on the black market you have to put more effort into making something. The tradition was smoking marijuana.
Now, it’s showing that 40 to 50 percent of sales are edibles, and I think that inherently people want to stay away from smoking. I had someone tell me the other day, “Nobody wants to smoke this stuff anymore,” and you even see that with vaporizers. I think it’s proof the market works: The customer wants a clean, uncontaminated product that won’t hurt their health or won’t lead to any unexpected health effects.
SDN: Is there a future in edibles, or is this a flash-in-the-pan trend?
SM: I think that’s where the market is heading. These will be billion-dollar brands down the road, like Reese’s. The Colorado companies will begin to brand things before anyone else because we are so far ahead. Companies like Cheeba Chews and Incredibles will begin spreading across the country.
SDN: What are your thoughts on legalization beyond Colorado? Will it happen quickly, or will it take time?
SM: Like I said, we need to get more than half of the states legalized. You have the 2016 elections, where you’ll get ballot initiatives in four or five new states and most of them will go recreational. The marijuana movement is not worried about what president gets elected — no Republican president will come in with eight to 10 legalized states and shut it down. They might instruct the U.S. Attorneys office to look into the state laws closer, and if they do that, it’s fine.
SDN: What dominoes need to fall for federal decriminalization, if that’s even a possibility?
SM: I think we’re already at the tipping point. It’s happening, and once you have 26, 27, 28 legal states, the federal government will have to see the light. The experience in Colorado is that there have been some bad stories lately, but for the most part the sky hasn’t fallen. If someone is being irresponsible on marijuana, it’s because they did it to themselves. We don’t actually need federal legalization — we just need some deferment from the federal government that says if businesses are operating within the laws of their state, they won’t be shut down. And that can’t just be a statement. It needs to be a statute, a law.
SDN: At the federal level, are any laws or drafts circulating around to guarantee that safety for business owners and even banks?
SM: You have the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment (a 2014 law to block federal funding for initiatives that prevent state medical marijuana laws) and that’s a huge thing. Taking the DEA out of the game is a huge deal — they have a cultural hatred of marijuana. There has been progress in Congress, but I think we’re still four to five years away from changing federal law to get banking in the marijuana business. We get pessimistic about banking with marijuana, but they made the point at a conference in Las Vegas that the first banks to get involved with the gambling industry were also very tentative. The money was tied to the mob, but then you had one small bank willing to take a risk and that was the beginning. There is so much money in this industry that eventually people will take the same risks they need to tap into that.
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