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Sal Pace: He led on cannabis, now he’s leaving office

After 6 years as Pueblo County Commissioner and leading the recreational cannabis charge, Sal Pace won’t seek reelection in 2018, creating questions of who will be the industry’s next political pilot.

Graphic by Riki Takaoka

Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace isn’t running for re-election. That leaves a huge question mark over the next name that will lead Pueblo County on a number of issues, but particularly the marijuana issue.

Pace has been at the front of the conversation of what a legal marijuana market should look like, how it should operate and how it can be better in Pueblo and across the state.

The former State House minority leader and current county commissioner has had his name tied to the subject of marijuana since the beginning — he was elected to the legislature in 2008 and appointed to county commissioner in 2013. In 2016, Pace held tight to his support of the marijuana industry, opting to celebrate the downfall of potential industry-killer Props. 200 and 300 in Pueblo instead of watching results roll in with fellow Democrats.

The death of Pace’s father last year and the sudden death of his sister has caused the lawmaker to take a hard look at his life, notably the time spent — and not spent — with his family. He wants more of it, and so that involves less lawmaking.

“Sadly for me, it took losing my own father and sister to fully comprehend the importance of being present for my kids and wife,” Pace wrote in an editorial announcing his decision to not seek re-election. “I know that no lost experience can ever be replaced.”

In a sit-down interview with PULP, Pace talks the politics and policy of the industry and where local leaders should pay close attention to as more states legalize.

So, you’re not running for reelection. Was that a tough decision?

Nope. I think it’s important to reevaluate your values. It’s a constant struggle determining perception versus being here in the now. Ego is really based on past experiences and future expectations.

You’ve been seen as a leader for the marijuana industry in Pueblo. Do you think that will be your legacy?

That’ll be for the political pundits to decide.

How did this become your issue, anyway?

Because too many politicians are cowards. It’s a no-brainer. Especially when you look at the overwhelming support from the public. I don’t think it’s very risky at all. I feel very confident that 20 years now from now people will laugh that there was ever marijuana prohibition.

Do you think taking on marijuana policy like you did was a good political move?

I don’t know if it served me well politically. I’ve enjoyed being on the front-end of policy debates. I enjoy the opportunity to shape policy. If the goal is to be popular and reelected easily, which is the normal definition in modern-day politics, then no, this hasn’t been good for politics.

The emails and scowls and the threats I get daily response from prohibitionists? No. Other issues didn’t bring out the visceral response from the public.

It’s no secret that there has been a vocal group against the industry in Pueblo — they still say pot has made Pueblo worse off. Is there something the pro-marijuana camp can learn from them?

I’m probably talking to regulators and policy makers in other states 2-3 times per week. And I’ve met with dozens of states and regulators and legislators from several different countries. I tell people to not expect the opposition to disappear because there’s overwhelming support. Frankly, had I known (the opposition) wouldn’t respect the will of the voters, there were policies I would have done differently to alleviate some of their responses.

I think we’ll have some form of national legalization and decriminalization in the next three years. And I don’t know how the local prohibitionists will react, but it will take a lot of the wind out of their sails.

The marijuana scholarships got a lot of attention — even nation wide — do you think they’ll have a lasting effect on Pueblo’s economy?

There are people that weren’t going to go to college or were going to go somewhere else. There were kids that were going to take a year off, but didn’t so they could qualify for the scholarship program. I think it’s a bit of a chicken and egg argument, but I don’t think anything can go wrong with a more educated populace.

Do you have advice for other Pueblo leaders on how to navigate the future of legalized cannabis?

I think, considering the vocal minority still exists, the city did the right thing on a limited number of store fronts. I think it’s important to look at the tax rate. That doesn’t play a big role on the retail side, but as we want to keep the thousands of jobs in cultivation and manufacturing, it’s important we don’t tax them out of existence.

I’m probably going to propose tapping the excise tax. I think there are two areas where policy makers should keep a keen eye on. One is continuing to foster cultivation — that’s where we have a distinct advantage. In the county, I think that means working with some of the largest dispensary chains in the state.

We can create another couple of thousands jobs by doing that.

In the city, they should really take a look at their 8 percent excise tax. They might not realize it, but they’re driving away a lot of business.

The other piece that’s really important is cannabis research at CSU-Pueblo. When you’re generating intellectual property or new ways of production — that wealth from IP will be worth more than just cultivating or dispensing.

Do you think this Institute of Cannabis Research will put CSU-Pueblo on the map?

Oh, absolutely, if they embrace it. They’ll have to deal with the same political issues that I did.

What’s your vision for Pueblo and marijuana in 10 years?

I think the big variable is whether there will be shipment of cannabis across state lines in 10 years. And you know, I’m really nervous about the overproduction of wholesale cannabis. Obviously Pueblo has played a role in that. We could see point of sales decrease in Colorado.

I’m really concerned about people surviving and the commoditization of product. It’s a lot more affordable to buy it wholesale than grow it in Denver. In 10 years from now, I think we’ll have legal shipment across state lines. It will allow Pueblo to be a cultivation hub for the nation.

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Written by Kara Mason

Kara Mason is PULP's news editor. She is also the Society of Professional Journalists Colorado Pro Chapter president. Kara freelances for other regional publications, covering government, politics and the environment.

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