I recently walked into the lion’s den.

This former political reporter turned cannabis flack coughed up the $15 to attend a symposium in October at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, Colo. The symposium was titled, “Marijuana’s True Impact on Colorado.” It was a largely one-sided event featuring local and national marijuana legalization critics.

Here’s what I didn’t think I would be saying about the event: “I had a great time.”

I found that the sessions featured at the symposium offered a glimpse into the thinking of marijuana critics. Much of their thinking was misguided, and often resembled #FakeNews. But it was still valuable to me, a cannabis industry stakeholder, to understand where the opposition is coming from and why.

Kevin Sabet, head of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM, perhaps the best-known anti-legalization organization in the nation, offered a keynote speech. As Sensi Magazine writer Leland Rucker pointed out, “Sabet’s talk echoed SAM’s current bullet points: The cannabis industry is today’s Big Tobacco, a business behemoth out to ‘hook’ minorities and children to its addictive products.”

Sabet went over his usual baseless claims, including that marijuana is a gateway to opioid addiction. In other words, “FAKE NEWS!” Studies indicate that marijuana is actually an “exit drug,” offering a safer alternative to opioids.

The start of legal marijuana sales in Colorado may have reversed a rising trend of prescription opioid overdose deaths in the state. Nearly one fewer person per month died of an opioid overdose in Colorado after the start of legal cannabis sales compared to before, according to a peer-reviewed study that appeared in the November issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

When I left my previous job as a political and statehouse reporter for The Colorado Springs Gazette/ColoradoPolitics.com to take a job with Terrapin Care Station, we issued a news release about it. It got some attention and generated a few headlines. Sabet, for some reason, decided to call me out on Twitter.

“This is big: Most of the pot news people have read out of CO has been written by people selling out to Big Marijuana.” He was referring to an article in the Colorado Independent about how myself and former Associated Press reporter Kristen Wyatt – a longtime colleague of mine covering the Colorado Capitol – had taken positions in the cannabis world. Wyatt, now married with the last name Nichols, wasn’t even “selling out to Big Marijuana.” She took a job as a hemp reporter for Marijuana Business Daily.

It was a totally unfair tweet on Sabet’s part. Wyatt and I had dutifully covered the Capitol for about a decade, each carving out names for ourselves in the Colorado government and political worlds. Our stories were well trusted; Wyatt’s probably more than mine. Wyatt and I were never accused of bias when reporting on marijuana issues, and Wyatt ultimately became the leading national cannabis wire reporter in America because her work was so valued.

In a bit of irony, one of my last stories as a reporter was about marijuana revenue and where it goes in Colorado. Sabet was fairly quoted in my story, just days before I would take a job with Terrapin Care Station.

I decided to approach Sabet at the Colorado Christian University symposium. He couldn’t have been more cordial. We laughed about him calling me out on Twitter, and then I offered to grab a cup of coffee with him. He didn’t have time, but Sabet said he might take me up on the offer during a later trip to Colorado.

The invitation still stands, Kevin.

No, the cannabis industry is not employed by the Mob

One of the more interesting sessions I attended at the CCU symposium was hosted by Smart Colorado, a group that works to keep cannabis away from children. Over my years of reporting on marijuana in Colorado, I became close with some of the leaders of Smart Colorado. When I walked into their session at the symposium, I greeted them with a hug.

I sat down and listened; I kept my mouth shut. But then one gentleman in the audience raised his hand to ask a question, “Is everyone employed in the marijuana industry in the Mob?” he asked.

At first, I chuckled, but then I realized he was serious. I couldn’t help myself. I had to stand up and respond – not only for myself, but for the more than 30,000 people employed by the cannabis industry in Colorado who are clearly not in the Mafia.

“No, I’m not in the Mob,” I said. “I’m a former journalist who just decided to take a different career path. I now work in the cannabis industry. Would it be helpful to hear from someone who works in the industry?”

Taken aback, the gentleman began nodding his head, as others in the audience began to turn their heads towards me. What ensued was a productive back-and-forth question-and-answer in which members of the audience asked me a range of questions.

After several minutes of this, the session ended. Members of the audience began to come up to me to thank me for answering their questions. One woman commented that she had never been able to connect a face to someone working in the cannabis industry.

A lot of what the cannabis industry faces when it comes to opposition is an unfamiliarity on the part of its critics. Informative and productive conversations between opponents and those in the industry can often build bridges that lead to acceptance.

So, no, we’re not in the Mob. Hopefully our opponents get to know us better so they can see that we’re really just their friends, family and neighbors serving the community.