Luke Niforatos is on a mission "to bring light to simple, hard truths on the negative impacts" that legal marijuana is having on Colorado and the rest of the country.
Is that a quixotic quest — given Colorado's statewide vote years ago to legalize marijuana sales and use; given the other states that have followed suit, and given polling that continues to show majority support for legalization?
On the contrary, contends Niforatos in this week's Q&A: "The pendulum is starting to come back on this issue."
The Colorado-raised-and-educated Niforatos oversees day-to-day operations for Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM, a leading national anti-marijuana group based in the D.C. area that opposes legal recreational pot and advocates against its use.
He covers the bases with us regarding the Great Marijuana Debate: his organization's goals; his view as to which side in the debate is backed up by hard science; whether the public is starting to regret legalization, and more.
Colorado Politics: First, let’s talk strategy. Colorado was a leader in legalizing medical and then recreational marijuana, but a lot of other states have caught up since then. In other words, the pendulum hasn’t been swinging your way lately. Do the aims of Smart Approaches to Marijuana include turning back the tide and repealing legalization outright in states like Colorado — assuming that’s possible — or is its mission narrower and, some might say, more realistic?
Luke Niforatos: The pendulum is starting to come back on this issue. Only a couple states have legalized marijuana in the past three years. I think the perspective of a lot of folks here in Colorado and in other legal states is shifting, seeing the results of legalization now as overall a net negative. Promises of large tax revenue, elimination of the black market, and a “highly regulated" drug have all proved empty.
In Colorado, our focus is to bring light to simple, hard truths on the negative impacts legalization is having in our communities, and to fight for more stringent regulations on this industry — much like tobacco. In the years to come, when given the full story, I think the public will make the right decision on this so-called experiment.
- Colorado-based chief of staff and senior policy advisor for the national organization, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, since 2017.
- Founder, CEO of Niforatos Solutions, 2012 to present.
- Co-founder, CEO of DocBuddy Inc.; invented, developed and launched the DocBuddy application for physicians.
- Analyst and special-projects manager, Centura Health, 2011-2013.
- Holds bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Denver.
- Interned for U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, 2009.
- Graduate of Overland High School in Aurora.
- Has been a volunteer with the Global Outreach Foundation, a disaster-relief and humanitarian organization, since 2002.
CP: Another area of SAM’s operation is educating the public. You call for a “science-based drug policy” that exposes the harms of marijuana in general as well as in different marijuana-infused products. You have written and spoken about marijuana’s wide-ranging dangers such as psychosis and schizophrenia. Pot proponents would say your science is in fact scare tactics resurrected from the “Reefer Madness” playbook. Or, is it that the booming marijuana industry is covering up its products’ ill-effects — and just whistling past the graveyard in hopes no one will notice?
Niforatos: We built SAM with cutting-edge science in mind and we are led by an award-winning scientific advisory board with members from University of Colorado and Harvard University, for example. We now have extensive research from institutions like the Lancet Journal of Psychiatry, one of the foremost journals on this subject, who are telling us along with every major medical association that marijuana is a harmful, addictive substance that should not be commercialized.
The pot industry of course downplays the harms, not unlike what Big Tobacco did or what some companies in the pharmaceutical industry did with opioids. It is striking to me that we have a trial going on right now in Oklahoma where the two key points of the prosecution are that one of those companies deliberately downplayed harms while misrepresenting supposed health benefits of their opioids. That is exactly what the marijuana industry is doing today!
CP: A special focus of your efforts is in curbing pot use among teens and pre-teens. Pot purveyors and producers say they agree with you that kids and pot don’t mix, and Colorado law does indeed make marijuana as off-limits to minors as is alcohol or tobacco. So, doesn’t that settle it — i.e., problem solved — or should society in fact do more to keep kids away from pot given how readily available it is to adults?
Niforatos: Of course most people agree we don’t want kids to use drugs, but I have two simple questions: Why does the pot industry continue to sell marijuana-laced gummies, candies, ice creams and other child-friendly products in every state that legalizes? Why, in Denver City Council, did the industry push a bill to reduce the setbacks protecting child daycares from pot lounges?
The fact is, the marijuana industry’s rhetoric says one thing, but their actions say another. Regardless, how are our adult-only laws going with alcohol and tobacco? Simply saying it is illegal for youth does not solve the problem. A permissive environment leads to prevalence of the drug among youth, and that is exactly what we are seeing in Colorado.
When my 2-year-old daughter Shiloh goes to high school one day, my hope is that her entire generation is not set back in academic performance or in their future aspirations due to the marijuana-friendly climate we have created here.
CP: It’s an old question but still relevant: What’s the difference between the failed U.S. attempt at alcohol prohibition a century ago and the war on drugs, including marijuana, over the past half-century? Legalization proponents long have argued that for better or worse, prohibition is doomed to fail because producers and consumers will connect one way or another.
Niforatos: Alcohol and marijuana are two completely different drugs and case studies. Alcohol is used by more than two-thirds of our nation, marijuana is less than 10%. Alcohol is responsible for a lot of harm in this country, but the concept of fully removing it from our society after thousands of years of acceptance is not realistic.
We still have a choice with marijuana as to whether or not we want to normalize and incorporate this drug into our culture permanently, and given the scientific harms and results here in Colorado, I hope we don’t.
CP: You not only are based in Colorado, from which you help SAM wage its national campaign, but you also grew up here. What in your experience makes Coloradans so supportive of legalization, as polls seem to show?
Niforatos: I am grateful for the amazing opportunities the state of Colorado afforded me in growing up, going to Overland High School and then the University of Denver. My sense of our state has always been that we have an independent streak, and a desire to lead in our own way. This pioneering spirit has been beneficial in terms of our leadership in the health care space, which is where I cut my teeth working for Centura Health and founding my first successful startup.
Unfortunately, this philosophy was hijacked when it came to drug policy. Noble ends, chief among them a desire to stop incarcerating people for low-level possession and to gain more money for our schools, were given the wrong solution, legalization. What Coloradans got in the end was not, I think, what we wanted — a new multibillion-dollar drug industry invested in by tobacco.
In retrospect, I believe most of us would vote for alternatives to incarceration and would have forgone commercialization of pot, which has brought us much more than our state was prepared to handle.
CP: Tell us about your background as a young entrepreneur who was also active in politics — and how that led to your activism against marijuana use.
Niforatos: My lifelong mission since I was very young has been to make a positive, beneficial impact on everyone I meet and to serve my community in any way I can. During high school, I started a first-of-its-kind diversity festival celebrating the over 60 different countries represented at Overland High School. In college, I fought alongside Aurora City Council members to get rid of bikini-barista coffee shops that were being placed near schools and later helped manage some house district campaigns.
After graduating I spent the first part of my career in health care and founded my digital health startup because I wanted to drive better care for people who need it most. My business and local political experience led me to Washington, D.C., where I joined SAM and began advocating for a cause I believe will make our state and our country a better place to live and work for generations to come.
Presently I find myself based in Colorado but splitting my time between D.C. and traveling across the country and internationally to speak, organize and educate. Working alongside organizations like the NAACP, minority caucuses, law enforcement groups, and public health associations has continued to expand my perspective and help make me a stronger leader.
CP: Would you ever run for political office?
Niforatos: I believe service to our country — whether in the military, public service, or simply getting active on an issue you care about — is the most noble thing we can seek to do. I believe America is the greatest country on earth and I love the state of Colorado. I want to be in a place where I can drive the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Right now, I am happily serving my country on this issue of great importance to the public and that is where my focus is.