Gov. John Hickenlooper emerged as Colorado’s reluctant supervisor in the first year of legal recreational marijuana sales, tasked with administering a law he didn’t support as the state set a model for the nation.
The Democrat’s difficult stance created frequent awkward moments, even as it helped set the tone for the state’s cautious approach to legal pot after voters approved the 2012 ballot initiative.
The most notable came at a campaign forum in October when Hickenlooper made national headlines for saying Colorado voters were “reckless” to legalize marijuana, forcing him to walk it back and call it “risky” instead.
But now, outside the campaign spotlight and with a year of lessons learned, Hickenlooper said his stance on the issue is evolving.
“If I had a magic wand that I could have waved and reversed the decision of the voters … the day after the election, I would have waved my wand,” he said in a recent interview.
“Now, I’m not so sure,” he said crediting his team with a smooth implementation. “It’s not impossible to see that we could create a regulatory framework that works.”
Hickenlooper pointed to reports from the left-leaning Brookings Institution that called the rollout “largely successful” and the right-leaning Cato Institute that found the law “had minimal impact on marijuana use and the outcomes sometimes associated with use.”
Days after recreational pot became legal Jan. 1, 2014, Hickenlooper used his State of the State address to highlight the challenge faced by him and other lawmakers who opposed the law. “This will be one of the great social experiments of this century. And while not all of us chose it, being first means we all share a responsibility to do it properly,” he said.
At a National Governors Association meeting a month later, Hickenlooper said at least a half-dozen governors approached him with questions about Colorado’s new law.
He urged caution — a line he still repeats when asked. “What I say is you should wait a couple years,” Hickenlooper told CNN after the November election. “I don’t think any state should do it just for tax revenues or that kind of revenue decision. Let’s see what the unintended conflicts are and whether they can really diminish to a point where this new system makes sense for everyone.”
A poll months into the new law’s tenure showed more than half of Coloradans approved of the way Hickenlooper was directing marijuana policy, a figure that broke down along mostly partisan lines just like marijuana legalization. A new Denver Post poll shows respondents mostly approve of the state’s administration of marijuana legalization.
“I think he’s done what many of us did,” said state Sen. Cheri Jahn, a Wheat Ridge Democrat who served on a task force studying marijuana regulations. “It really doesn’t matter what you think of it — the voters voted for it.”
State Rep. Tim Dore, an Elizabeth Republican who served on a marijuana committee, said he wanted to see Hickenlooper take a stronger stance against the ballot measure, as well as take a more definitive position on how to implement the regulations. “I am a little disappointed the governor’s office didn’t provide more leadership on issues like this,” he said.
Even though Hickenlooper isn’t a fan, the marijuana industry doesn’t consider him an opponent. They even held a fundraiser for his re-election campaign.
“We don’t need true believers,” said Michael Elliott, the director of the Marijuana Industry Group, a Denver-based lobbying organization for dispensaries. “We need people who are going to make this program work. That’s been the governor. He’s done a really good job of making this program work.”
Still, the pitfalls remain.
The issue of how to label edibles and keep them from children ensnared Hickenlooper in controversy in October when the state Department of Public Health and Environment recommended a ban on the sales of nearly all marijuana edibles, only to have the governor distance himself. The health department had to issue a statement saying the proposal was intended for discussion and it wasn’t reviewed by the governor’s office.
Not all efforts met with acceptance. An advertising firm hired by the governor’s office to help convince kids not to use marijuana was panned. The “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” effort that featured oversized rat cages and strongly worded messages came under harsh criticism when it debuted in August, and at least one school district rejected the campaign. Colorado health officials, however, believe the conversation around the effort helped make it a success.
In an interview, Hickenlooper said one of his biggest concerns about marijuana is the unknowns about the potential health effects and “negative unintended consequences,” particularly for children.
“The costs are dramatic once a kid slides off the tracks,” he said. “They stop going to school, and they start hanging out in their parents’ basement. They eventually run away. The cost of getting those kids reconnected to constructive lives is very, very significant.”
Here’s the message Hickenlooper says he doesn’t want children to take away from Colorado’s move toward pot legalization: “They think it’s safe for them because it’s been legalized by adults.”
Staff writer Joey Bunch contributed to this report.