The consulting arm of Denver Relief, a cannabis grower and retailer in Colorado's capital, today announced that Laura Harris, former director of the state Department of Revenue's Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED), has joined the firm as a regulatory adviser. Harris, who took over what was then the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division in late 2011, retired last August after 30 years of working for the revenue department. In an email message that was leaked to The Denver Post, Harris said she had planned to stay at the MED until mid-2014, after the newly legal recreational pot stores were up and running, "but I found that the personal toll of this job was too much." She added that "I found that I was becoming ineffective with my colleagues at those times when it was necessary to address areas of disagreement."
When I interviewed Harris for my 2013 Reason cover story about legalization in Colorado, I found her to be refreshingly candid. Although Colorado's medical marijuana regulations were widely cited as a model for other states, she made it clear that they were largely arbitrary and difficult to enforce. She questioned the rule requiring dispensaries to grow at least 70 percent of their inventory (which applies to recreational stores until this October) and the practicality of developing child-resistant packaging for cannabis-infused foods. "The current code is extremely difficult to regulate," she said. "What you will hear from many in industry is that this works. Well I'm not as optimistic about it working. If it worked, we would be able to present evidence of how the model works toward good enforcement." This was two months before the state auditor released a report that was sharply critical of medical marijuana regulation in Colorado.
Harris, who worked as a revenue agent and a criminal investigator before becoming Colorado's chief cannabis regulator, had a pretty steep learning curve. "Even in college,," she said, "I did not partake. I can say that honestly. I had friends in law enforcement. My first husband was in law enforcement, which was the environment in which I was raised. My perception of what marijuana was when I came into this division is the little flowers in the baggie that I had seen others carry around." A year or so later, she had learned "much more about the canabis plant, much more about the theory around its medicinal effects and much more about what is actually extracted from the plants other than the flower—the resin and all the products that are created from the resin. So yes, its been very educational."
Now Harris will be educating others—not about the plant so much as the often baffling rules surrounding its use. "It's exciting to be able to bring my expertise on cannabis regulation to Denver Relief Consulting, a firm that has demonstrated a commitment to establishing a responsible model for the entire nation to follow," she says in a press release. "As more states follow Colorado's regulatory lead, both in medical and retail cannabis, it is imperative that individual governments have a framework in which to work so that there are no unintended consequences." Harris' transition is yet another sign that marijuana is becoming an industry like any other, faster than many of us anticipated.
Related: "DEA Agent Joins Marijuana Industry"