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Interview: Sensible Colorado founder Brian Vicente on medical marijuana

“I happened upon an issue that has really been at the forefront of Colorado and the nation in the past couple of years. It’s a fun ride,” says Sensible Colorado founder Brian Vicente. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Empowered by a 2000 Colorado constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana in the state and emboldened by a liberal presidential administration, entrepreneurs are opening medical-marijuana dispensaries at a record rate across the Front Range. As founder and executive director of nonprofit medical marijuana advocacy group Sensible Colorado, Brian Vicente (JD ’04) is on the forefront of the medical marijuana issue in the state, lobbying to make sure that new laws regulating dispensaries won’t end up hurting patients.


Q: What is Sensible Colorado and how long has it been around?

A: We were formed in 2004; I actually helped found the organization when I was a law student at DU. We’re the lead nonprofit that advocates for Colorado’s medical marijuana patients. We do that in the courtroom, at the legislature, at the ballot box, wherever it needs to be done. We also work on broader drug policy reform issues, focused largely on removing criminal penalties for adults possessing marijuana.


Q: Colorado passed a ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana in 2000, but only recently have we seen an explosion in the number of dispensaries. What changed?

A: I think it was a number of factors. One was just that the economy took such a nosedive that a lot of people can’t afford health insurance. And marijuana is actually a medicine that people can grow on their own. They don’t have to pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars to buy it at the pharmacy. So I think a lot of people started thinking about alternative health care when they couldn’t afford traditional health care.

Also, the Obama administration came out and said, “As long as you’re following state law, we’re not interested in prosecuting you federally.” They issued an official memo from the Department of Justice in October 2009 saying this. For the nine years prior to that, if you used medical marijuana the federal government’s position was, “We’re going to put you in jail.” I think for a lot of people that shroud of fear was lifted and a lot of people began talking to their doctors about medical marijuana, becoming educated, and learning that it does indeed have some degree of medical efficacy for certain conditions.


Q: A lot of people think that dispensaries and medical marijuana are the first steps toward outright legalization of marijuana in Colorado. Do you agree?

A: I think it’s important to separate the two issues. The first and foremost issue for us is making sure patients have safe and legal access to medical marijuana. With the emergence of these regulated storefronts where people are purchasing marijuana for medical purposes, will that lead to a broader discussion about whether our current marijuana laws make sense? It’s quite possible. We’ve had 70-plus years in our country where the sale of marijuana to anyone would put you in prison. And now we have a number of states, including Colorado, where these regulated sales are entirely sanctioned by state and local government. The sky hasn’t fallen, and there have been a lot of positive effects. If you look at our economy, one of the few growing industries right now in Colorado is the medical marijuana field.


Q: Do you ever worry that people are going to label you as the pothead lawyer?

A: Not really—to me this is an issue that I care passionately about. It’s a matter of social justice. We need to change the drug law and the war on drugs, and if I can be a part of that then I’m happy. I happened upon an issue that has really been at the forefront of Colorado and the nation in the past couple of years. It’s a fun ride.


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