Marijuana: Denver Relief execs on partnering with ex-state pot regulator Laura Harris
Denver Relief Consulting's announcement of a new partnership with Laura Harris, former head of Colorado's Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division, instantly stirred controversy, with some members of the local cannabis community crying foul and at least one good-government activist citing potential ethical concerns. But DRC co-founders Ean Seeb and Kayvan Khalatbari tout Harris's move to the industry side of the fence, arguing that her expertise can help other states that are considering or implementing progressive marijuana policies.
Photos and video below.
"We're always looking to expand our team," Seeb says, "and we were thinking out of the box about who good team members would be. We've always respected and admired Laura, so we had a conversation with her. She was open to the opportunity, and now she's part of our team."
Last summer, Harris was in a very different place, but not for much longer: In July, she announced that she was leaving her MMED job as of August 1, 2013. Shortly thereafter, we noted mixed feelings about her tenure.
Ean Seeb with Governor John Hickenlooper after the latter's Goldfish and Cheetos line.
"No question that Harris has been the target of criticism, particularly due to a damning audit of the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division," we wrote at the time. "Released in March, the document blasts the MMED for ineffective oversight, as well as poor management of funds exemplified by a graphic showing nineteen consecutive months of net losses during fiscal years 2011 and 2012, much of it on Harris's watch; she took over in late 2011."
Here's that graphic:
However, marijuana attorney Warren Edson gave high marks to Harris when it came to communicating with MMJ stakeholders. He called a January meeting to review proposed changes to medical marijuana regulation as surprisingly pleasant, with Harris proving open to discussion about proposals such as "removing live-feed cameras from dispensaries and simplifying the manifest process so the industry wasn't having to send quite as many documents and the state wasn't having to deal with receiving so many documents," he pointed out.
Likewise, Edson praised Harris for considering what he sees as some common-sense alterations in rules. Indeed, his main gripe about her involved the timing of her departure, mere months before recreational sales were to launch.
It didn't take long for Harris to find a place in the private sector. In December, as reported by the Denver Business Journal, she joined the law firm of Dill, Dill, Carr, Stonbraker & Hutchings, PC, as a regulatory consultant. And this week, Harris added the DRC partnership to her schedule. She wasn't available to speak with Westword, but a statement from the release quotes her as saying, "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. 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."
The announcement prompted a CBS4 story noting that Harris is the second state marijuana regulator to move into the pot industry, following Matt Cook, who worked closely with legislators in developing Colorado's marijuana rules after the laws authorizing medical sales and shops went into effect. He jumped into the consultancy business after leaving his state job and subsequently appeared on a 60 Minutes broadcast about the Colorado weed scene.
Matt Cook as he appeared in a "60 Minutes" segment on the Colorado marijuana industry.
There's nothing illegal about such moves, but Elena Nunez, state executive director of Common Cause, told the station that "there are a couple of problems potentially. One, they have specialized knowledge of the agency and its processes, and they also have special relationships that can influence their ability to get approval for contracts contributions or other things." Likewise, Representative Dan Pabon cautioned that "we need to make sure those folks who are privy to confidential information about the industry or client matters maintain that confidentiality and privilege."
Far less circumspect is prominent marijuana advocate Kathleen Chippi, who blasted Harris and Cook in an e-mail to Westword. She writes: "The CO pot regulators seem to be building the empire that they plan on benefiting from and no one seems to care how corrupt it is. 'Foul play' would be called in any other instance. I wonder if the feds are okay with an 'F' audit and the head 'regulators' joining the industry they were supposed to regulate."
Harsh words -- but Seeb and Khalatbari believe many of the complaints are unfounded. Khalatbari stresses that Harris will not be handling DRC business in Colorado. Instead, she'll be consulting with clients in other states where DRC operates.
Continue for more of our interview with Denver Relief Consulting's co-founders about their new partnership with former Colorado pot regulator Laura Harris, including more photos and a video.