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

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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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Colorado officials to focus on treatment, enforcement to curb heroin epidemic

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Colorado officials said Tuesday that they hope a two-fold approach will prevent the growth of the state’s heroin epidemic.

Federal and state officials announced plans to focus on prosecuting dealers and use local law enforcement to link people addicted to the drug to treatment options.

According to an updated report also released Tuesday, 228 people died in Colorado in 2016 from heroin overdoses. That’s an increase of 43 percent compared to 2015, when 160 heroin overdose deaths were reported.

Colorado U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer said his office is working with the Drug Enforcement Agency and local prosecutors to bring federal charges against traffickers of heroin, fentanyl and other dangerous drugs. Federal prosecutions can lead to longer sentences and those convicted serve time in far-flung federal prisons rather than state prisons, sending a warning to other dealers, Troyer said.

“This is not a mass incarceration argument,” Troyer said. “This is an exacting, targeting argument on those causing the most harm.”

The second half of the strategy will encourage local law enforcement to help people addicted to the drug get access to treatment through a state hotline.

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said local law enforcement quickly learn to recognize the difference between someone who is dealing and someone who is caught in the grip of addiction.

“We’re doing something that we haven’t done in a long time,” Spurlock said. “And that is go after the pushers but have an equally opposing force on the user and helping those folks get off.”

Under the new plan, officers can contact the hotline directly or encourage people with addiction to use it as a resource.

State health officials said the hotline operators walk callers through the process of finding treatment options.

The effort doesn’t have any new financial backing. Officials with the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Area program said they will direct $4 million in existing funds toward law enforcement task forces aggressively targeting heroin dealers.

“We don’t want to become an East coast, a West Virginia or Ohio,” said Tom Gorman, director of the program. “We want to take a proactive approach and say we want to stop this in Colorado.”

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Denver seeks cannabis tax hike to ease housing crisis

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Denver officials have unveiled a plan that would have marijuana buyers help pay for an expansion of the city’s 10-year, $150 million affordable housing fund.

The Denver Post reports Mayor Michael Hancock and other city officials on Monday unveiled the proposal that, if approved, would increase the city’s 3.5 percent special tax on recreational marijuana sales to 5.5 percent.

The tax hike requires only council approval since Denver voters capped the special local tax at 15 percent when they approved it in 2013.

The city’s shorter-term plan is to subsidize the building or preservation of 3,000 income-restricted apartments and other housing units in the next five years. The Denver Post reports that the proposal would allow the city to up its goal of 3,000 apartments to 6,400.

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Colorado teachers takeover Capitol demanding better school funding

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Hundreds of public school teachers swarmed the Colorado state Capitol on Monday, shuttering one suburban Denver school district to demand better salaries, as lawmakers were set to debate a pension reform measure that would cut retirement benefits and take-home pay.

With the demonstrations, Colorado educators join peers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona who have staged strikes or high-profile protests in recent weeks to draw attention to what teachers unions see as a growing crisis in the profession.

In Colorado the need is especially stark – and apparently at odds with a state economy that ranks among the nation’s best. The average teacher salary – $46,155 in 2016 -ranks 46th among states and Washington, D.C., according to the latest figures from the National Education Association.

By another metric, Colorado’s dead last. The Education Law Center, an advocacy group, said this year that Colorado’s teacher salaries are the worst in the nation “when compared to professionals with similar education levels.”

Teachers rallied in and outside the building Monday, holding signs and chanting slogans including “You left me no choice. I have to use my teacher voice.” They drew honks from passing cars before heading inside, where their cheers and songs resonated throughout the Golden Dome, drawing lawmakers out of their respective chambers to investigate the noise.

Washington, D.C., native Callie Gonyea, who is in her second year teaching at Ellis Elementary School in Denver, said she was surprised to learn that Colorado spending was so far below the national average given the number of people moving to the state and the millions of dollars raised in taxes on legalized marijuana.

“There’s no reason we should be down there,” said the second-grade teacher, who walked outside the Capitol holding a sign that said “We(e’)d like the weed money, man.”

Gonyea said she would like to see more funding to pay for mental health treatment at her school, which has one full-time psychologist. She said her class alone has three students who would benefit from daily check-ins with the therapist.

While recent teacher protests have come in firmly red states, Colorado has a Democratic governor and a Legislature split between Democrats and Republicans, but it has some of the strictest spending limits in the country thanks to a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 1992, and all tax hikes require voter approval.

Education advocates have filed statewide ballot measures this year to raise revenue for schools, but past attempts have repeatedly been rejected by voters.

It’s not clear if Colorado’s activism could be a sign of protests spreading to more Democratic-leaning states. There are two blue states are in the bottom half of per pupil spending with Colorado — California at 35 and Oregon at 36.

Monday’s demonstration was organized by the state’s largest teachers union, the Colorado Education Association, which estimated the morning crowd at 400. Englewood Schools Superintendent Wendy Rubin said that over 70 percent of the district’s faculty was expected to be absent so classes were cancelled Monday.

School funding has been at the forefront of the state’s spending fights for years, but organizers said this year’s lobbying day drew additional interest in light of recent demonstrations across the country.

Democratic lawmakers cheered the protests on Monday, stopping to pose for selfies with the teachers. But Republicans questioned the timing of the demonstrations in a year that lawmakers are expected to increase K-12 funding by the largest amount in recent memory.

“As a lifelong educator — I was in education for 40 years — I can see what the concerns are, but quite frankly this year they’re totally unfounded,” said state Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida. “I find it kind of ironic that we have the stirring up of the CEA troops and bringing them to the Capitol today when we’re considering a school finance bill this year which has the biggest increase since 2008.”

Colorado currently underfunds its schools by $822 million annually, pinching rural areas in particular, where school districts face teacher shortages. Lawmakers in next year’s budget plan to “buy down” the annual amount owed to schools by $150 million, and boost per-pupil spending by 6 percent. It’s unclear if the additional funding will result in lasting raises in the poorest districts, where superintendents complain of losing teachers to places like Walmart.

A sweeping pension reform effort moving through the Legislature could require districts and teachers alike to contribute more to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, which faces an unfunded debt of at least $32 billion. And a property-tax limiting provision of the state constitution is expected to trigger cuts to local school funding in 2019.

Colorado recently ranked 40th in spending per student according to 2013 figures from the National Center for Education Statistics compiled by the Colorado School Finance Project.

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