Alumni / Spring 2017

Alumni shaping Denver: Brian Vicente, Amendment 64

“[Denver has] become an increasingly desirable place to live, and I do think that marijuana laws have played a part in that. ” Photo: Anthony Camera

Brian Vicente (JD ’04) has been fighting the marijuana fight for more than a decade, most significantly as co-director and one of two primary authors of the 2012 measure that made Colorado the first state in the country to legalize recreational marijuana. These days Vicente and his 50-person firm, Vicente Sederberg, are devoted full time to marijuana policy and regulation — which includes advising local governments around the world on how to run their own legalization efforts. The firm also has endowed a professorship at the Sturm College of Law.


Q: How does a marijuana lawyer spend his workday?

A: I spend a good chunk of time working with clients around the country who are trying to open new marijuana or medical marijuana stores or are looking for investments. The rest of my time is spent doing policy stuff, representing governments and others who are looking to expand laws or write codes for their communities. I’ve been working on this issue since 2004, when I graduated from DU. For many years I was toiling in obscurity — people thought marijuana laws would never change and the war on drugs would be forever — then we really caught some momentum, culminating with Colorado [becoming] the first place in the world to legalize [recreational] marijuana in 2012. And that just opened up this world of possibility for people who were in Nebraska or Australia or whatever to say, “Wait a minute, there are alternatives to prohibition? Let’s see how it works.”


Q: What do you tell them about how things are going in Colorado?

A: Things have gone very well in Colorado. [The law has] been thoughtfully implemented, balancing out community and law enforcement interests with the need to bring in revenue and have thriving businesses. It’s contributing in massive ways to our economy — $200 million in new taxes, which is four times as much as we get from alcohol, about $1.3 billion in sales, and 20,000 direct jobs.


Q: How did you get involved with this cause in the first place? What were you doing around the issue before you worked on the 2012 measure that legalized marijuana in Colorado?

A: I always felt like the war on drugs was kind of our generation’s Vietnam. At DU, I worked for a professor and a federal judge who encouraged my interest. In 2004 I helped found an organization called Sensible Colorado, and our mission was to essentially pass positive marijuana and medical marijuana laws in Colorado. So I started working on it in 2004. Largely around the medical marijuana piece, but also asking the question, “Does prohibition make sense?” I became the go-to lawyer fighting those cases.


Q: What was it like on Election Night in 2012, when the measure passed?

A: It was amazing. There was a collective energy in that room — we had a big event downtown, and we just really felt like [it was] an earth-changing moment. People were crying, people were laughing, people who had spent decades in jail for marijuana were there and were hugging. It was very powerful, and I think it signaled a power shift in how drug policy works. For me, one of the really interesting things, perhaps relevant to what’s going on economically now in Denver, is that you have this really significant social change — shifting away from prohibition, shifting away from the war on drugs — that’s actually intersecting with an opportunity for commerce. You don’t see that often. For instance, with something like gay marriage, that was a major positive social change, not exactly an opportunity for commerce. But with marijuana, it’s like, “It’s no longer criminal; we’ve taken this massive market away from cartels; we’re regulating it; and there are tens of thousands of jobs being created.”


Q: What do you like best about Denver in 2017?

A: I think Denver has really matured as a city. Our population has become more diverse and eclectic, and certainly the economy has been booming. It’s become an increasingly desirable place to live, and I do think that marijuana laws have played a part in that. [Legalization has] drawn a certain aspect of the public that doesn’t want to be criminalized for using a substance less harmful than alcohol. I think it’s led to jobs and innovation here in the community.


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