The Marijuana Czar of Colorado


Outside of work, Andrew Freedman tries not to tell anyone about his job. Not because it’s a top-secret government position; yes, it’s a government job, but probably one you never knew existed.

His official, jargon-y title is director of marijuana coordination for Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado—a title that didn’t exist before he got the job in February 2014. But he may be better known as his unofficial, colloquial title: marijuana czar.

“[Telling people what I do] has ruined almost every dinner conversation I’ve had,” Freedman says. “Sometimes I get caught up in a pro- or anti-legalization debate, so I’ve witnessed everything from admiration to anger.”

Colorado made history when it became the first U.S. state to legalize the recreational use and sale of marijuana in 2014, but Freedman steers clear of advocating for or against legalization. Here’s how he got the job, the challenges he faces, and why half-baked ideas (sorry, had to) for getting rich quick off Colorado’s pot market don’t usually pan out.

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The otherwise nondescript office where Freedman (left) works has some old prohibition posters hanging, to remind them of where they are historically.

Age: 33
Based in: Denver, Colorado
Graduated from: Majored in political science and philosophy at Tufts; Harvard Law School
Got the job: In February 2014

Previous jobs: After law school, while waiting for my law firm job to start in D.C., I interned for then-mayor Hickenlooper’s gubernatorial campaign. A few days before the election, the lieutenant governor asked me to stay on as his chief of staff. A few years later, I left to run an education tax increase initiative. When that campaign lost, I was looking to become a lawyer, but I was tapped by the governor and his chief of staff for this job.

What was the interview for the job like? They needed to know very little about my stance on the legalization of marijuana. It was more about how I thought of big government and whether I would be able to handle complex regulatory and legal challenges. It’s a massive communications job and a massive budgetary job.

That’s a lot less exciting than I wanted your answer to be. The title is a little hard to wrap your mind around; it sounds very government-y. The first time I did a TV interview, it was very important to people [in government] that I was called the director of marijuana coordination, not “marijuana czar.” I was trying to be very serious about it. Before the interview started, a local news anchor came up and said, “you’re the pot czar, huh?” They included that B-roll of me in their clip, and from that point on, I’ve been the marijuana czar.

Why is your job necessary? Like 10 different departments all had major issues [related to marijuana] and no one knew who was answering those issues. No one knew what to elevate, and marijuana is a big issue for us—so if we don’t solve it, we won’t hit our mission. I help wrangle all that.

What kinds of issues? We work very hard to apply the lessons from alcohol and prescription drugs. Edibles is a good example; they have to be in childhood resealable packaging, and the gummies can’t look like cartoon characters or bears. Soon, each one will have to be stamped with a universal symbol, so even outside of the package, they can be identified as marijuana edibles. We’re really focused on keeping marijuana out of kids’ hands.

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There’s an ongoing national debate about legalization. Does that make your job harder? Marijuana typically is not handled with unbiased gloves when it comes to data. We’re looking forward to going out into the midst of people for and against [legalization], the people who are screaming at each other, and telling them how to read the data from an unbiased point of view. Outside of this administration, it’s something you have to be aware of constantly; my mission isn’t to spread or stop legalization. My focus is public safety and public health.

Best part of your job: Being one of the first people to try to tackle a totally new problem is a very rare thing to find yourself in within state government.

Does that let you avoid some of the red tape and frustration that are typically tied to government jobs? It’s freeing in a lot of ways. In so many areas of government, when you have an idea, it’s not the first time someone has had that idea—and there’s probably already a lobbying group that loves or hates that idea and has figured out how to put several millions of dollars behind it. With my job, that hasn’t happened yet. It’s too dynamic; there are no institutions in place yet.

Most challenging part of your job: In a lot of ways, we’re treated as a chess piece for the rest of the world, or at least the rest of the nation. Everyone has their biases and wants to get to conclusions now. Rather than going ahead with what’s in Colorado’s best interest, people are trying to pull you in one direction or another to influence the national dialogue about marijuana.

What can other states learn from Colorado? These debates are much more complicated than “should we or shouldn’t we?” We need to think about the “how.”

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Photo: Flickr, Oksana Happy

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? I work in what’s been described as a bunker-like office on the basement floor of a building that I think the WPA [Works Progress Administration] helped build in the Depression era. People expect to walk into much nicer digs, but it’s a humble life here in marijuana-ville. It’s kind of an old-timey Peter Parker newsroom setup. We do have windows, though mine looks out on an A/C unit. There is fluorescent lighting with government-colored walls.

That seems like a missed decorating opportunity. We bought our own posters, on private dollar, to remind us where we are historically. There are some old prohibition posters that show liquor being poured down the drain; a “closed for prohibition” sign; a political cartoon about medical alcohol; a “grow hemp for the war” sign.

Lots of entrepreneurs are hoping to make big money off Colorado’s weed market. What have you noticed about the successful ones? Those who viewed the market like they’d view a widget market, not making assumptions about how easy it would be, have done a lot better. I’m talking about the people who say, “I have a product that works here and here, and it’ll work in Colorado, too.” Those who were just excited because it’s marijuana and thought there was a gold rush here ultimately didn’t do nearly as well.

Inside the regulated market, every plant is tagged with a RFID tag—a little radio tag—from seed to sale. You have to videotape every square inch of what you grow and where you sell it, which we can view anytime. If you say that you lost 20 plants to a fire, we need to see video of that fire.

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A sample tag that can be scanned by radio-frequency identification devices, which lets officials track cannabis plants and products. Photo: Flickr, aceserve2001

When you meet someone new, outside government walls, how do you describe your job? I try not to tell anybody because it’s ruined almost every dinner conversation I’ve had since February 2014. It’s surprising how many people understand exactly where Colorado is with legalization; they’re interested in everything from banking to edibles. Sometimes I get caught up in a pro- or anti-legalization debate, so I’ve witnessed everything from admiration to anger.

What about people within government, who might be surprised your job title exists? I let the shock value wear off. During one cabinet meeting with a new member, we went around the table and said what we did. When I gave my job title, the whole cabinet laughed. Later, that new member asked me what I really did. Everyone has to go through their own giggling—then we get onto business from there.

Dream job growing up: I’ve always been a big West Wing fan, so I’ll have to say chief of staff to the president.

Salary range: $100,000 to $120,000.

For more No Joe Schmos who deal with edibles, meet the professional ice cream taster and the dog food taster

All images courtesy of Andrew Freedman, unless noted otherwise.

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