Q&A with Melissa Kuipers Blake | Power lobbyist has the answers on pot and more
Author: Dan Njegomir - July 17, 2018 - Updated: July 26, 2018
Colorado’s odyssey involving legal marijuana continues to spark debate in the political world and to sow confusion in the business world. It can be a minefield for both the public and private sectors — and Melissa Kuipers Blake stands ready to help.
The Denver-based lawyer-lobbyist with political powerhouse law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck has spent the better part of two decades honing her game in shaping public policy. And ever since Colorado voters legalized medical and recreational cannabis, she has been cementing her rep as a go-to on the subject. She chairs the firm’s Emerging Regulated Industries practice group, which helps state and local governments and employers throughout the country navigate the complexities of legalization.
In our latest Q&A, she moves beyond the rhetoric that so often drives the headlines on marijuana, offering insights instead into the realpolitik behind the state’s newest cash crop.
Read on, and you’ll also get her perspective on the oft-misunderstood role of the lobbyist — and you’ll find out how she says she hooked on the profession in the first place.
Colorado Politics: Although a half-dozen years already have passed since Colorado voters legalized recreational marijuana, it seems like it was only in the past few years that this upstart industry really took off. And even as it has been showing exponential growth in that time, pouring revenue into state and local government coffers, it also has alarmed critics who fear its all-around impact on communities and especially on kids.
Put public opinion in perspective for us: Could such apprehension in some quarters wind up turning back the clock and paving the way for a crackdown? Maybe even a rollback of Amendment 64 by voters at the ballot box? Or, is the horse out of the barn? Is the general public in fact OK with legal recreational pot — and have they moved on?
Melissa Kuipers Blake: Given recent polling by Pew Research indicating that 61 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational use, I don’t expect there will be any massive rollback to the industry. There will certainly be ongoing tweaks of the industry by legislatures and regulators in perpetuity, but this is commonplace for highly regulated businesses in the gaming, pharmaceutical, alcohol and tobacco space.
Currently, 30 states have legalized marijuana for medicinal or recreational use. Combined, those states represent 207 million people out of America’s total population of 325 million. Given the sheer complexity of the undertaking of creating an entirely new industry, the key is thoughtfulness and moderation. Just as the alcohol industry came out of Prohibition in 1933, and has turned into a highly regulated $25 billion industry, it is important for policymakers to address marijuana similarly.
Not only should the focus be adequate regulation and taxation of the industry, but also robust public safety and education campaigns, training for law enforcement, and harmonization between state and federal laws so the rules of engagement are well known and understood by all players.
Melissa Kuipers Blake
- Lobbyist, political strategist, attorney, shareholder with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck in Denver; chairs the firm’s Emerging Regulated Industries practice group.
- Named a “Top Lawyer in Government Relations/Lobbying” in 5280 Magazine’s 2016 and 2017 Top Lawyer’s List. Also tagged as one of the Denver Business Journal’s “Top Forty under 40” at the age of 29; named a Rising Star in 5280 Magazine’s 2014 list of the most powerful people in Denver, and picked as a Top 25 Young Professional by ColoradoBiz Magazine in 2015
- CEO of Baking for the Troops, a Colorado-based nonprofit that sends homemade care packages of baked goods to members of the U.S. military throughout the world.
- Was vice president of government relations and communications, Colorado Automobile Dealers Association, 2008-2011.
- Former legislative director, Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, 2007-2008.
- Bachelor of science, Florida State University; J.D., University of Miami School of Law.
CP: What’s next on the public policy front for Colorado’s experiment with legal marijuana? Will municipalities that currently bar retail pot sales, like Colorado Springs, soften their opposition? Will there be a continued push to permit on-premises consumption at dispensaries — essentially, marijuana bars?
Melissa Kuipers Blake: Some communities will welcome the marijuana industry and others will not, just as some states have “dry” counties even to this day with regard to the sale of alcohol. Colorado has always had a very important focus on local control to allow communities to make decisions that are right for their citizens. Just as states resent the federal government telling them what to do, cities and counties have a similar reaction to “one-size-fits-all” state regulations that will have a significant impact on their communities for years to come. The on-premises consumption question is a great one and the subject of much debate.
The language of Amendment 64 — the constitutional amendment that voters passed in 2012 that legalized recreational marijuana use for adults over 21 years old — includes a prohibition on any “consumption that is conducted openly and publicly or in a manner that endangers others.” That language is not further defined by the amendment, nor has the Colorado Legislature passed a bill that provides a definition of what is and what is not “open and public” consumption, likely leaving the issue for the courts to decide.
The uncertainty around what “open and public” consumption means has left local communities at the forefront of the debate. For example, in 2016, voters in Denver passed local Initiative 300, which created a new “cannabis consumption establishment” business license within the city to allow businesses to allow the on-site consumption of marijuana brought by patrons. At this time, only one consumption establishment license has been granted and appeals for denials are ongoing.
Given the sheer market demand for a sanctioned place to consume marijuana products outside of a private residence, I fully expect that efforts to create an on-premises consumption establishment regime will only continue.
CP: What do you think ultimately will come of Colorado’s faceoff with the federal government over marijuana? Is this just a passing dustup with the current administration? It’s worth noting Colorado’s Washington delegation — from both political parties — for the most part has stood up to the administration in defense of the state’s sovereignty in charting its own course on marijuana.
Melissa Kuipers Blake: How do members of Congress get elected? By voters from their states. Who do they listen to most when making policy decisions? Voters and key constituencies in their states. Given these dynamics and the old adage that “all politics are local,” I feel very comfortable saying that the state/federal faceoff on marijuana will end with the states having enough power and political pressure to force a congressional solution to the issue.
And, as we saw when Attorney General Sessions repealed the “Cole Memo,” which was the only guidance from the federal government on the issue, there was an immediate coalescence of support between state and federal elected officials that something had to be done in Congress to address the incongruity between state and federal laws on marijuana.
It is important to note that governors and attorneys general have been aggressively on the front lines defending state law against federal overreach and have been incredibly vocal in the marijuana conversation over the last decade.
CP: You are a power lawyer-lobbyist for a politically influential national law firm; ColoradoBizmagazine called you “The Negotiator.” After a couple of decades in the industry, how would you say lobbying has evolved, particularly at Colorado’s Capitol? How is the public perception of lobbying different from the reality?
Melissa Kuipers Blake: My first foray into politics was in 1996, when I served as a page for then state Sen. Charlie Crist, a dynamic up-and-comer from St. Petersburg, Florida, where I went to high school. Charlie is now a member of Congress, serving Florida’s 13th Congressional District. I applied for the experience and once accepted, decided to use my spring break vacation of my junior year of high school to work in the senator’s office answering calls, running errands, and shepherding documents between the senator and his office while he was on the floor (remember, this was before cell phones, laptops and the sophistication of the internet).
In that one week, I was hooked. I loved the energy of the experience, the hustle and bustle of the legislative session, and the realization that I — a 16-year-old kid with no political connections but big dreams and a lot of grit — could make it in this business and most importantly, make a difference in my state. I served as a page again during my senior year of high school and only applied to Florida State University in Tallahassee so I could work in the Capitol during college. The rest, as they say, is history.
I worked for 10 years in the Florida Legislature and just completed my 10th year at the Colorado Capitol. Its changed a lot. When I got my start in (the Florida state capital of) Tallahassee, there were somewhat limitless opportunities for lobbyists and their clients to entertain, and hopefully persuade, the votes of elected officials. In some ways, this was better because it was well known who did what for whom — dinners, concerts, parties, trips — and it was all out in the open. And if an elected official wanted to accept any of these gifts, they had to run the risk of them being used against them in a future election.
Fast forward to the present day, these kinds of entertainment experiences are mostly nonexistent in most legislatures throughout the country. The tightening of ethics rules now prohibits lobbyists from buying any elected officials anything of value — even a cup of coffee. Is it better for the business of politics? Sure. Does it make for an awkward dinner when everyone has to pay their own way? Sure. But we’ve all gotten pretty comfortable with it. We spend a lot less time at five-star restaurants and a lot more time at coffee shops.
The public perception of lobbying is far different from the day-to-day reality. I think most folks expect that I am always entertaining legislators at extravagant restaurants, and for the reasons explained above, I can’t. I often joke with my fellow lobbyists at the Capitol when I’m consuming my lunch — consisting of a protein bar, string cheese and an apple — outside of a committee hearing about how “fancy” this business is!
Most legislators do not have the budgets for full-time staff, so lobbyists become somewhat of a research arm for the General Assembly. We provide information to the legislators and their key staff about a variety of issues and always give the “other side” of the argument so that legislators know what they are walking into.
Rule No. 1 of a successful lobbyist: Always tell the legislator whose vote you are seeking what the opponents of your “ask” will say. No one likes surprises, and helping legislators navigate these political and policy landmines is a crucial step to creating a long-term, trusting working relationship with public officials at all levels of government.
I feel very comfortable saying that the state/federal faceoff on marijuana will end with the states having enough power and political pressure to force a congressional solution to the issue.
CP: Do a lot of lobbyists actually prefer split control of the legislature between the two political parties because it arguably encourages negotiation on what are in many cases nonpartisan, non-ideological issues? Or, does split control lead to gridlock — as seems to be the case on transportation funding? And does it really matter to you which party controls the governor’s mansion?
Melissa Kuipers Blake: I’m a big fan of split control. When either party occupies control of both the House and Senate, there’s an inherent temptation to try to pass that party’s entire political agenda at once for fear of losing power two years later in the next election. With that aggressive approach to policymaking, many constituencies who may not support the party in power are left out of key conversations or overlooked entirely because they aren’t seen as relevant or necessary.
Split control provides an opportunity to flush out legislation that is perceived as extreme by either party, thereby either eliminating the bill altogether, or instead forcing a negotiation and compromise that is more palatable to all parties. Compromise has become a four-letter word in politics and I wish that would change. It’s not a zero-sum game.
The entire point of our representative democracy is for citizens to elect people who represent their interests back home, and are therefore empowered to negotiate critical policies from transportation to healthcare to public education on their behalf. Split control forces these kinds of conversations.
As for the governor, it always matters. But, it matters most when the governor makes it clear that he or she will use their veto pen! It’s a truly frustrating exercise to pass a bill through both chambers only to have it eliminated by the swipe of a pen by the most powerful political figure in state government. The party control of the governor’s mansion often informs the movement of the legislature, regardless of whether the legislature itself is governed by split control.
CP: Do you foresee Colorado becoming less partisan and ever more purple — and politically unpredictable — as the No. 1 voting bloc of those who are unaffiliated continues to grow?
Melissa Kuipers Blake: The answer to all of those questions is yes. I see the red parts getting brighter red, the blue parts getting brighter blue, and the purple areas growing in density with each passing year. I can’t drive down I-25 on my daily commute without seeing cars from Florida, Texas and California. This is my very unscientific — but I believe generally accurate — take on the future of the Colorado electorate.
When I shared with my Florida colleagues that I was relocating to Colorado, the former chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Carlos LaCasa, said to me with an excited look on his face, “You are trading one amazing outdoor aficionado’s lifestyle for another!” He was spot on and I believe our state’s diverse growth reflects that. With its national presence as a tourism destination and unquenchable thirst for development, Colorado will only continue to attract people from other states who want to experience big things for their families.
In my experience, Colorado really became a national political powerhouse since Denver hosted the 2008 Democratic National Convention and only six short years later was on the short list to host the Republican National Convention. Sen. Cory Gardner is the current chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the massive fundraising arm for Republican U.S. senators, and Sen. Michael Bennet was the chairman of the Democrat Senatorial Campaign Committee, the massive fundraising arm for Democrat U.S. senators from 2012–2014. These kinds of national appointments by political party establishment on both sides of the aisle reflect the purple and diverse nature of our state, our electorate, and our path for the future.
And, last but not least, let’s not forget that the Libertarian Party was founded on Dec. 11, 1971, in Colorado Springs. Their roots then and now reflect an independent spirit that pushes back on government interference into their personal, family and business decisions. As the unaffiliated voting population continues to grow and attract individuals that do not wish to identify with any political party, the potential for Colorado becoming one of the most purple states in the union is almost guaranteed.
CP: What’s the best — and worst — part about lobbying?
Melissa Kuipers Blake: Best part of lobbying? Making a tangible difference in the financial or social well-being for our clients and the employees and constituencies they serve.
Worst part of lobbying? The marble floors! They are gorgeous and historic, but a girl can only last so long in 4-inch heels on those floors. It’s a good thing they make padded inserts or I’d never make it through the day.