Colorado’s Governor John Hickenlooper warily learns to live with pot

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Andrew Romano
·West Coast Correspondent
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Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper.
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper in the Colorado State Capitol. (Photo: Carl Bower for Yahoo News)

When the people of Colorado voted in 2012 to legalize recreational marijuana, they instantly transformed their governor, John Hickenlooper, into America’s most reluctant pot pioneer. Citing various risks, the rangy Democrat warned Coloradans not to “break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly.”

“If it was up to me, I wouldn’t have done it,” Hickenlooper admitted. “I opposed it from the very beginning.”

But the governor didn’t have a choice — and now, after nearly five years of overseeing what has become a $1 billion industry, he considers himself “cautiously optimistic.”

“We were worried about everything,” Hickenlooper tells Yahoo News. “We were worried about kid usage going up, people coming into work high, the branding of the state. We haven’t seen anything negative in regard to any of those things.”

In early April, Hickenlooper spoke to us about the factors and forces that have softened his stance, how Colorado families are benefiting from legalization, and his own experiences with marijuana as both a son and a father.

Excerpts:

YAHOO NEWS: You opposed Amendment 64, saying it wasn’t worth the risk. What were you afraid would happen if Colorado legalized recreational marijuana?

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER: I was afraid that we would see a spike in teenage use and a rapid increase in overall use. And a big part of my reluctance was that, as a governor, you don’t want to be in conflict with federal law. Even Amsterdam never fully legalized marijuana — they set up a regulatory system to tax it. To do something that literally no one in the world had ever done before … it’s a steep hill.

You have a teenage son. He was 8 at the time. How did being a father influence your views on legalization?

Obviously having a son who’s just coming into the age when a lot of the brain scientists believe that this high-THC marijuana is most damaging … that was difficult. They say there’s a high probability that you’ll lose a sliver of your long-term memory every time you use this high-THC marijuana. So I was worried that teenagers like my son would think that if the adults have legalized this, it must be OK.

Nearly five years have passed since Colorado embarked on this experiment. What were you right to worry about? What were you wrong to worry about?

We were wrong to worry about a dramatic spike in overall usage and teenage usage. Basically, the people who were smoking marijuana before it was legal still are. The people who weren’t smoking marijuana before it was legal still aren’t.

We were worried about everything. We were worried about kid usage going up, people coming into work high, the branding of the state. We haven’t seen anything negative in regard to any of those things.

Haven’t some studies shown that teenage use is up?

Not in Colorado. People fight over which data sets to use, but the largest database we have — it’s thousands of kids — shows that teenage use is essentially flat.

In fact, it’s the same thing across all age groups — with the exception of senior citizens. More senior citizens appear to be smoking. Not a huge amount, but more. A 5 or 6 percent increase.

That’s interesting. Why?

We’re not sure if it’s pain mitigation or if it’s just baby boomers remembering their high school days. [Laughs] I don’t know what that is.

Would you support Amendment 64 today, knowing what you now know?

You know, it’s hard to say. What I’ve said before is that if I had a magic wand when it first passed and I could have reversed the vote, I would have. Now if I had a magic wand I’d probably put it back in the drawer for a couple of years. I’d want to see more data. I’m not sure I’d vote for it yet.

But certainly the old system was a train wreck. So if I had a do-over — and I tell other governors this — I’d wait a couple of years. Let’s get more data in to see whether this thing really works.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper in the Colorado State Capitol. (Photo: Carl Bower for Yahoo News)
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper in the Colorado State Capitol. (Photo: Carl Bower for Yahoo News)

What data do you want to see? What do you need to know before you declare legalization an unqualified success?

I’d like a couple more years on teenage use, just to make sure. I’d also like more data on overall usage. And they’re finally beginning to do scientific experiments. The fact that we don’t have good data on the effects of prolonged high-THC marijuana use — what it does to your long-term memory — that is, to me, very frustrating.

If no state was willing to take the first step, though, we’d never get these answers.

That’s fair. Louis Brandeis was the first to say the states are laboratories of democracy. This is a classic example.

Has being the governor in charge of recreational legalization made it harder to talk to your son about pot?

No. If anything, it’s been easier. I bet I don’t go two weeks without having a discussion with him. He’s in ninth grade now, so he just went into one of the big public high schools here in Denver. Within three weeks of being there, somebody offered to sell him some pot. He came back and told me and I said, “Well, you didn’t buy it, did you?” And he laughed and went, “Dad, you’re so square. Of course I didn’t buy it. You’re the governor. I can’t do that.”

He’s politically aware.

[Laughs] Well, it’s politically aware, but really what he meant is that he’s heard about it so much that it wasn’t even something that he’d considered. And he said that none of his friends had even considered it. It’s not something any of them are looking forward to experimenting with.

Why not?

We spent a bunch of time and a bunch of money trying to market some of the risks of this high-THC marijuana to teenagers. We took the tax money and prioritized it toward the unintended consequences of legalization. This year we’ll spend $10 million on TV ads and radio ads and promotions.

When I was a kid, there was an old movie called Reefer Madness. It was hysterical, and by hysterical I don’t mean hysterically funny. They were so over the top in terms of what would happen if anyone ever dared to touch marijuana. So I graduated from high school in 1970. In my senior class, 95 percent of the kids had tried marijuana before they graduated — they did a poll.

Wow.

Now it was much, much weaker. They say it was one-sixth to one-eighth the intensity of the marijuana out there today. But it was pretty commonplace.

So it was kind of weird. Reefer Madness and all the hysteria that surrounded marijuana in the 1950s and earlier made us so cynical about the whole thing — and that lesson tempers how we market the risks to teenagers so that they’ll hear it.

Did your mother ever talk to you about marijuana?

She never talked to me about it in terms of “don’t use it, it’s dangerous.” She never said one thing or another. We did end up having discussions, though, because I tried it and she found a little bit in my room. Then we had a serious discussion. Her point was, “Listen, if you want to break the law, don’t do it in my house. You’re 18 years old, I can’t control everything you do. But I think you’re being stupid, and whatever you do, you can’t break the law in my house. It’s not fair.”

Did you listen to her?

She was exactly right, and I never did again.

But pot is something you experimented with when you were younger — just like 95 percent of your high school classmates?

Yeah, exactly.

What were your feelings about it before you became a politician?

I was aware that it was out there. I was always surprised … sometimes you’d be at someone’s house for dinner and someone would light up a joint after the meal. I was like, “Wow, I never thought they smoked pot!” [Laughs]

When you speak to families — parents, kids, husbands, wives — what do they tell you about legalization and how it’s affecting them?

It’s all over the map. There are some parents who still, no matter what the data says, they think it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to the state and that their kids are at risk — unreasonable risk. And I tell them, “Talk to any teenager. Before it was legalized, any kid who wanted it could get it cheap.” And they go, “Not like it is now.” And I say, “That’s not what the data says.” But people feel that way.

A lot of people are still worried about their employees. But it’s just like drinking. Drinking is legal, but you can’t come in drunk. Same with marijuana — you can’t smoke it at work, you can’t come in high. If it affects your work, your boss has the right to fire you.

Do families seem to be registering any of the positive impacts?

There are people who are engaged in the community — especially civic-minded people — who welcome the change because the old war on drugs was such a failure. We were sending so many low-income kids to prison, giving them a felony on their record. That was the wrong way.

The son of a friend of mine interviewed me for a school project about two years ago. He was 17. Afterwards I asked him, “Do you think it’s more likely that your friends will try marijuana, use marijuana, now that it’s legal?”

And he looked at me and smiled, and said, “Are you kidding? Drug dealers don’t care who they sell it to, so we could always get marijuana. If you guys tax it right and figure out how to get rid of the black market, the drug dealers, then you’ll actually make it harder for us kids to get access to it.”

Was your friend’s son right?

We have some anecdotal evidence that there are fewer drug dealers on the street. Which makes sense. They estimated that marijuana was 40 to 50 percent of the drug trade. If you take 40 to 50 percent of any retail sales product out of circulation, you’re not going to be able to support the same number of distributors. I had never really thought about that.

Donald Trump recently said, “They’ve got a lot of problems going on right now in Colorado, some big problems.” It sounds like you think Trump is wrong.

He is. Every state has problems. The big problems are the ones you don’t know how to deal with.

How have you dealt with the problems that have arisen from legalization?

In most cases, the things we should have worried about more, we’ve been able to come back and legislate.

A friend, his 12-year-old kid was at a movie, went into the restroom, and some other kid offered him a gummy bear infused with marijuana for $5. That’s just not right. That’s the kind of stuff we didn’t anticipate.

But since then we’ve really come down on it. Now you cannot infuse anything that looks like candy — anything that looks like it’s meant for kids. No little gummy bears, no animals, no faces, none of that.

Like most states, we have caregiver rules that allow people to grow marijuana if they’re providing it to people for medical reasons. Our original law allowed these caregivers to grow up to 99 plants. Ninety-nine plants? You’re a factory. That’s not a caregiver. So this year we cut it back to 12 plants.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper in the Colorado State Capitol on April 4, 2017. (Photo: Carl Bower for Yahoo News)
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper in the Colorado State Capitol on April 4, 2017. (Photo: Carl Bower for Yahoo News)

What challenges remain? There are two bills working their way through the Colorado Legislature right now, one allowing home delivery and one allowing pot clubs. Where do you draw the line?

We knew there would be a large group of people with a self-interest in continuing to normalize pot use. I personally think it’s too early to be delivering marijuana, especially because of Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions’ clear opposition to recreational marijuana. I’ve been saying, “Hey, let’s just take a deep breath here.”

What about the pot clubs?

There’s a possibility some people will interpret them the wrong way, as somehow making pot easier for kids to get. I don’t see that great a risk there. That horse is out of that barn.

A pot club, you’re not going to be able to smoke it. You can’t smoke anything. We have a statewide indoor health law. So at a pot club you can sit around and eat edibles. Big deal. They can do that right now.

The attorney general just ordered the Justice Department to review its policy on pot. What are you going to do if Sessions tries to crack down on marijuana in your state?

Well, you know, Amendment 64 passed 55 percent to 45 percent here. Polls show it’s over 60 percent approval now. I took a solemn oath to uphold the Constitution of the state of Colorado. Our voters put marijuana into our Constitution. I don’t really have too much choice, the way I look at it.

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