Why you should care

Legalizing weed was only the first step. How this guy enforces Colorado’s new law will set a framework for the rest of the U.S.

At a Colorado Democratic caucus a few years ago, Scott Martinez hoisted his 4-year-old son onto his shoulders, stepped up to the microphone and spoke out in the party’s debate over the legalization of weed. He was staunchly against it, and as the debate grew hotter, his opponents accused him of using his kid as a prop to sway their vote. They were right, he admitted.

And he didn’t win. Soon enough, in fact, he would have to explain to his son that daddy’s new job would mean being the boss of the very same law they had tried to snuff out.

Welcome to the Mile High City, where the responsibility for rolling out legalized marijuana falls squarely on Martinez’s shoulders. Though just 36, he’s Denver’s city attorney — one of the youngest in the country — and was appointed to that position by the mayor. That means he’s lead counsel for all elected city officials and departments, including 11,000 employees, as well as chief counsel for Denver International Airport. All sorts of cases come across his desk, from those involving police brutality to racial discrimination and even inmate deaths. But one of his primary jobs these days is, well, pot management.

That part of the job has reverberations far beyond Colorado’s capital. Shortly after the state legalized cannabis, Oregon, Washington and Alaska implemented their own laws, and many other states are now considering doing the same — Washington, D.C., did so over the past week. So a lot of government squares who don’t smoke weed (or at least claim they don’t) may end up enforcing its legalization. And sometimes those challenges that are created can seem downright bizarre. Like how do dispensaries pay their taxes if federally insured banks won’t accept their cash, since marijuana is not legal nationwide? Can a local airport gift shop sell bongs? Is cruising at 25 mph down the freeway enough proof that you’re stoned and need to be pulled over? And how do you keep kids like your own impressionable young son and his friends away from all of this?

It’s Martinez’s job to figure out much of this, though similar issues are cropping up in more cities — and many are looking to see what kind of trail he and Denver blaze for the rest of the country. Oh, and in case you were wondering: Martinez says he doesn’t smoke anything, because “it dries out my contacts.”

***

Weed ambassador to the nation’s lawyers probably wasn’t what Martinez’s dad originally had in mind for his son’s future career. In fact, while growing up in the Denver suburb of Lakewood, it was Martinez who was up on his father’s shoulders — only the venue wasn’t legislative; it was religious. His family lived on church grounds, and Martinez’s father, a preacher, would let Scott climb up to his shoulders during Wesleyan sermons. But no drinking, no TV, no dancing.

When Scott grew too big for his father’s shoulders, he was thrust to the lectern to give readings, chiseling away any public speaking fears and molding a civic leader at the altar in daddy’s image. Which is why it must have been so shocking when dad drove by an abandoned gas station one night and found 13-year-old Scott among his friends, with a baseball bat in his hand, vandalizing the crap out of the place. But dad didn’t ground him. He had his teen arrested and hauled away in handcuffs.

That’s how some see him now: a young man in an old man’s job.

Martinez recalls the incident today — in his leathered office — with a smirk that seems to be a front for eyes and a tone that are still heavy with shame, like he’s interviewing for a high school job that he’s worried he won’t get now. That’s how some see him now: a young man in an old man’s job. And why wouldn’t they? After all, he wears hipsterlike pink ties, but only with white oxford shirts. He calls his wife “hot” but also the smartest woman he knows. He drives a beater but tips highly. Somehow, though, he makes it work. “My job,” he says, “is to often find the middle ground.”

It’s a job that traces back to the days after he graduated from the University of Colorado and then studied law at the University of San Diego. Upon his return to Denver he worked at Holland & Hart, a prestigious Colorado law firm, and nurtured his interest in Democratic Party politics. By 2002, the Colorado Democratic Party named him a “rising star,” and in 2009 he left the firm briefly to work in the office of White House counsel for President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team. After returning to Denver, Martinez made partner and dove into the project that would gain him the most name recognition yet: a congressional redistricting that left the city decidedly more blue than red.

At that time, Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty suggested that Martinez was unprofessional and called him a “Democratic hack.” A few months later, though, in January 2012, Democratic Mayor Michael Hancock appointed Martinez to deputy city attorney. His appointment came just a month after a meeting of the Colorado Latino Forum, where Mayor Hancock was criticized for not appointing enough Latinos. Last year, the Hispanic National Bar Association named Martinez “Latino Lawyer of the Year.”

Martinez’s youth makes him particularly well-suited to ride out the marijuana roller coaster.

As it turns out, Martinez is half Mexican, half German, though he identifies as Latino. “That’s the worldview I grew up with,” he says. And that could play to his advantage in the future if he ever decides to chase an elected position. Today, Colorado has one of the fastest-growing Latino electorates in the country, and roughly a quarter of Denverites are Latino. The wave is also catching up with government representatives in Denver, where Martinez is part of a tight but growing group of young Latino politicians, lawyers and advocates — many of whom went to college or grew up together — who are swiftly rising through the ranks.

One such rising star is Martinez’s own deputy city attorney, Cristal DeHerrera. The pair met years ago, and she was also a young partner in Denver when Martinez called on her to become his deputy following his promotion to city attorney last year. At the time, Martinez’s job had suddenly gotten trickier: Five days before his inauguration, Colorado legalized marijuana, and he told DeHerrera he needed “someone to be me when I can’t be in the room.” Sure enough, they look like they could be siblings, and they act like it too. Walking around the capitol plaza one morning, they switch from business talk to teasing each other. At one point he supports her as she avoids slipping on ice; later he takes a bro-type dig at her leopard-print heels.

scott martinez

Denver Deputy City Attorney Cristal DeHerrera and City Attorney Scott Martinez.

Martinez’s youth makes him particularly well-suited to ride out the marijuana roller coaster that seems to dominate much of his office’s work these days. But that also has some critics balking. Last year he organized a conference in Denver for city attorneys from around the country, where most attendees were surprised by his age. Houston’s recently retired city attorney, David Feldman, for one, says, “What works and doesn’t work on the ground — that comes with experience. And in my experience, I don’t know that I could have done that at 36.”

Others are less concerned about his age and just glad he won’t be advising and leading Democratic political operations now that he’s left private practice for the city attorney’s office. “I think he’s neutralized,” says Republican opponent Jon Anderson, a partner at Martinez’s old firm who often represented conservative causes to Martinez’s liberal ones.

For his part, Martinez says, “I feel anything but neutralized.” Indeed, he quickly snatches away blunt answers to some questions — labeling them off the record — like an alligator snapping at a threat. And whether intentionally or by accident, his staunch opposition to marijuana legalization ultimately legitimized him on both sides of the aisle. The anti-legalization side knows he went down swinging in its favor, while the pro-legalization side knows he’s the one bringing its wishes to fruition. It’s put him in a privileged, rarely attainable political position.

***

It’s an icy Tuesday evening in Denver, the last night before the Colorado Legislature reconvenes for session. Which means it’s the last night for lobbyists to do their thing, at a reception in a hollowed-out Mexican restaurant not far from the mayor’s office. In a few minutes, Martinez will be shaking hands and leading introductions, pulling jacketed men aside and embracing smiling women with fancy name tags. But for now, at the dark, nicer bar next door, he is finishing off a drink and a quiet conversation before heading into the piranha pool.

Did he think marijuana legalization would pass? “Almost certainly,” he responds confidently, as he sips down the last of his bourbon. So then, was his opposition to legalization — complete with his son atop his shoulders — a form of calculated political positioning for the future? He slowly sets down his glass and smirks, before adjusting his pink tie and walking into the room of people who can’t wait to shake his hand.

Photography by Cary Jobe for OZY

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