If you live in Colorado and enjoy cannabis, the next time you walk into a store and make a legal purchase, you can thank a lawyer.
Specifically, you can thank Christian Sederberg and Brian Vicente.
They’re the Denver attorneys who helped guide Colorado from the dark depths of cannabis prohibition to a system of regulation and taxation that is a model for the rest of the nation. Yes, the voters approved medical and then recreational use, but as they say, the devil is in the details, and the lawyers made sure the nascent cannabis industry had a strong voice in how legalization was rolled out.
And from the Rocky Mountains to the nation’s capital to the United Nations, the work has only begun.
“I believe people in this country should have an option to use a substance that’s objectively less harmful than alcohol and not face the collateral consequences of using that substance,” said Sederberg, 37, whose chrome-domed, bespectacled mug you might recognize from any number of television appearances.
“It really should be an individual choice and the people who suffer most are not upper or middle class folks, its generally people of lower socio-economic status and people of color who have taken the brunt of the prohibition model.”
Begun at college
It could be argued that Colorado’s cannabis revolution began on the campus of the University of Colorado at Boulder.
It was there in 2005 cannabis advocate Mason Tvert coordinated a successful student voter initiative to make the penalties for cannabis the same as for alcohol. That same year Denver voters approved possession of up to one ounce.
Sederberg, himself well-acquainted with cannabis growing up in Denver and studying law at CU-Boulder, graduated that year. Though he was strongly pro-cannabis, he went to work for a big law firm, handling corporate and real-estate transactions and all the regulations they entail.
Not exactly Perry Mason type of lawyering.
He was on a ski trip in 2009 with Vicente, his friend and fellow attorney who had founded Sensible Colorado four years earlier to advocate for legalization. Vicente suggested they start a law firm focusing on cannabis law. Colorado’s voter-approved medical cannabis system was exploding, thanks to a relaxation of regulations on the number of patients dispensaries could serve and the fact the Obama Administration had indicated the federal government wouldn’t interfere if properly regulated. Sederberg sensed the opportunity to be part of something special.
“If there was going to be statewide regulatory system they were going to need business lawyers,” said Sederberg.
In May of 2010 he quit his job. He hasn’t looked back.
A maze of regulations
Corporate law paid pretty well. Sederberg discovered cannabis law did not.
“At first there was zero dollars come in. I had to borrow money from my parents for rent,” he recalled.
That didn’t last. Dispensaries and growers were facing tight deadlines to comply with ever-changinglaws. The requirement of vertical integration—meaning dispensaries had to grow most of their own—was resulting in plenty of “shotgun weddings” between the two. Local governments were enacting their own rules or banning dispensaries outright.
Along with representing individual businesses, he became a “citizen lobbyist,” testifying at legislative hearings, sitting on task forces and speaking for the industry at city council meetings.
“In 2010 our structure was really truly the first full, top-down, state-regulated and locally-regulated system,” said Sederberg. “And a system of collecting taxes and having an enforcement arm that can address licensing issues and putting this in the hands of responsible business owners that are regulated by the government is really the reason why we were ultimately allowed to proceed.”
By 2012, Colorado cannabis advocates had decided it was time to take another stab at full legalization. Voters had rejected such a measure in 2006, but much had changed. Hundreds of medical dispensaries around the state had not caused an increase in crime or major societal problems. Attitudes towards cannabis were changing, and a Presidential election year promised a big turnout.
If you’re reading this, you probably know how it turned out. Cannabis won.
Devil in the details
Sederberg and Vicente were both key players in the legalization campaign and the laborious process of determining what form it would take. Yes, cannabis was legal to possess, but when it came to how it would be grown and sold to the adult public, the devil was once again in the details. Sederberg was appointed to the governor’s Amendment 64 Implementation Task Force.
Though Washington had also approved recreational cannabis, Colorado, with its existing medical-cannabis infrastructure, was to be the test case, and the world was watching.
Four years later, he gives Colorado a grade of A-.
“The thing we’re obviously most proud of is the fact that we were told the sky was going to fall. We were going to get cannabis legalization and it would have such a negative impact on business and the growth of the state and that simply hasn’t been the case,” said Sederberg.
“If you look at the way it was rolled out in Washington and Oregon, it went nowhere as smoothly as ours did. Not that it was smooth, but I think people look at our program and say, ‘Wow. They’ve done it in a way that works. Needs work but really does work.’”
Some concerns remain, including rules that prohibit former felons from being involved in the industry; a requirement that owners be longtime Colorado residents; a lack of oversight on pesticides in grow operations; the lack of banking options for cannabis businesses; and the ban on public use that basically gives tourists nowhere to legally consume.
Taking it global
These days, the Vicente-Sederberg law firm has offices in Denver, Boston and Washington D.C. They travel often; Sederberg has spoken at the United Nations about cannabis and visited Uruguay.
He points out that, though lawyers occasionally get a bad name, they have been involved in pretty much every major policy change in the nation’s history. He’s proud to be part of this one, and for the record is having much more fun he did as a corporate lawyer.
“I feel like the luckiest person in the world to be able to work with the people I work with …. To be able to be really at the forefront of something that involves the intersection of entrepreneurship, social justice, criminal justice, and really something that is fundamentally changing the way the United States operates. It’s an incredible privilege that I make sure to tell myself not to take for granted.”