Sal Pace ’95: The Pioneering Reformer


This article is part of a series on the cannabis industry called “The Green Rush.”

Sal Pace ’95 has always appreciated out-of-the-box thinking. It’s clear from his innovative work as a politician in Colorado, his side pursuits as an entrepreneur selling Grateful Dead-branded frisbees, and his recent venture as majority owner of a professional ultimate frisbee team. It’s why, he says, he was initially drawn to Williston. “I’ve never been the type of person that followed the crowd,” says Pace, who as his class treasurer found a way to hold prom on a boat on the Connecticut River. “I’ve always been a little out of the box, and Williston was a place where that was encouraged and fostered.”

That ability to see novel solutions infuses Pace’s groundbreaking work in the area of cannabis reform. Because if there is any box that our society needs to think outside of, he contends, it is the cannabis policies born of the war on drugs. “I’ve always held the belief that the war on drugs was a failure and that lives were being ruined at the hands of our government,” says Pace, now board chairman of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the country’s leading advocacy, consulting, and lobbying group for cannabis reform. “Over a half-million people every year are arrested for marijuana possession in this country. There are 40,000 people today behind bars for marijuana crimes. Is this really the best use of our tax dollars? Is this really making us safer?”

Pace has devoted his career to finding better approaches. A member of the Colorado state legislature from 2009 until 2013, he helped write the country’s first regulations for the legal sale of medical marijuana. As a county commissioner in Pueblo, Colorado, from 2013 to 2019, he spearheaded the creation of the Institute of Cannabis Research at Colorado State University-Pueblo, established a college scholarship program funded with cannabis tax revenue, and worked to develop the Pueblo area into “the Napa Valley of cannabis.” Today, he continues to shape the booming industry as a thought leader and reform architect. In addition to his work with the MPP, he serves on the U.S. Cannabis Council board, HeadCount’s Cannabis Voter Project advisory board, and the Institute of Cannabis Research governing board.

Pace credits his time at Williston—in particular, his sophomore English class with Harris Thompson—with fostering his creative independence. “It’s not the typical suit-and-tie boarding school where everyone is taught to think the same way,” he explains. It was at Williston, Pace says, that he discovered and helped promote the nascent sport of ultimate, playing in the school’s first tournament. He has been supporter of the game ever since, recently becoming majority owner of a Colorado expansion franchise that will play in the American Ultimate Disc League in 2022.

With the MPP, he continues to build on the group’s impressive record of successful cannabis legalization initiatives and legislation at the state level, as well as working to shape policy at the national level. Noting that Senators Cory Booker, Ron Wyden, and Majority Leader Charles Schumer have introduced a Senate bill that would end the federal prohibition of cannabis, he is now focused on making sure national legalization is done right. “I am concerned that, depending on how legalization happens, the marijuana industry will be controlled by just a few big corporations in 10 or 20 years,” he says. The industry also needs to address social equity issues, given the disproportionate impact that the war on drugs has had on communities of color. “There’s a real disconnect, when we still have folks in prison for marijuana, and other privileged folks are benefiting from legalization,” he says. “The biggest policy debate right now is how to diversify the benefits of legalization.”

Despite the challenges, Pace remains optimistic about the cannabis industry. “It’s an exciting space to be in because of the innovation,” he notes. “The out-of-the-box thinking is so substantial.” And, to Pace, that’s always been the best kind.