Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper delivers his State of the State address in the House chamber at the Capitol on Jan. 12, 2017. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

Exclusive: Here’s how Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper really feels about marijuana

In 2012, when Colorado voters wanted their state to legalize weed for adult recreational use, Gov. John Hickenlooper was thrust into an interesting predicament.

The moderate Democrat had stood in opposition to Amendment 64, a measure he felt would send the wrong message to kids, create public health risks, detract from Colorado’s desirability, and, not to mention, stoke the ire of the feds.

But voters’ will spoke and Hickenlooper became an extremely reluctant figurehead and participant in one of the most unique social and political experiments in recent years.

Nearly five years after that historic vote and a little more than three years since the regulated adult-use sales began, that experiment is ongoing and Colorado’s regulations are evolving. And on this front, the broader national landscape is flush with activity: While eight states, including Colorado, now have recreational marijuana laws, the federal government may no longer be a sleeping giant.

The experiment is headed toward a crossroads.

Hickenlooper this week sat down briefly with The Cannabist to address topics such as the looming threat of increased federal enforcement, how Colorado has fared thus far, 2017 state legislation to allow for the social use and home delivery of medical marijuana, his views as the parent of a teen and more.

(The following has been edited for clarity and length.)

Q: We’re three years into recreational marijuana sales in the state. How’s it going? What are your biggest concerns and priorities at this time — both in terms of the regulatory as well as industry development?

Hickenlooper: Always our primary focus has been public safety and to make sure that kids … we’re not going to see a big spike in teenagers using marijuana. I’d say in most circumstances, from most perspectives, our worst nightmares haven’t materialized.

We haven’t seen a spike in teenage use. We haven’t seen a giant increase in people’s consumption of marijuana. Seems like the people who were using marijuana before it was legal, still are. Seems like the people who weren’t using marijuana before it was legal, still aren’t.

Obviously now, (the) appointment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions has added an additional level of complexity; but overall, I’d say that the experiment — as it continues to move forward — has gone better certainly than I anticipated and I think certainly better than many people anticipated. Doesn’t mean that we’re completely out of the woods. We don’t have sufficient data to say there aren’t still unintended consequences that we need to address. But it’s certainly not as bad as what most people thought.

Q: You referenced Attorney General Sessions and I know you’re well aware of the remarks that both he and White House spokesman Sean Spicer have made in regard to potential enforcement as it relates to state-based cannabis programs. What could be the most likely courses of action that the feds may take, and what would your responses be?

Hickenlooper: It’s hard to predict what the action will be. Most of the lawyers I talk to find no legal difference between medical marijuana and recreational marijuana as it relates to federal law. So to crack down on only recreational marijuana and leave medical marijuana untouched, seems unlikely – if you assume that people are going to approach it the same way.

But by the same token, more than 60 percent of the population of this country live in a state that has either medical or recreational marijuana legal. That’s almost two-thirds of the people of this country living in a state that has some sort of legalized marijuana. To roll that back would be very difficult. And President Trump repeatedly said on the campaign that he thought that states were the right place and this was an experiment being done at the state level, and he wasn’t sure the federal government should get in and disrupt something that seemed to be moving forward.

I don’t think there’s much question the old system was a disaster. We sent hundreds of thousands — millions — on a nationwide basis, millions of kids to jail for non-violent crimes. We inducted them into a high probability of a lifetime of crime, strictly by sending them to prison for something that was a non-violent crime.

This new system, where we may not be completely sure of (whether) we’ve solved all the problems and that we’re going to be successful in this grand experiment, it does offer certain advantages to the status quo of the previous system. Now we have tax revenues.

Some people complain about the black market, “You’ve got this black market, this large black market. How do you address that?” Well, you know five years ago, it was a huge black market. Everything was black market, right? It was all illegal. Everything was being paid in cash and under the table. At least now we have some tax revenues that we can use to market to teenagers and make sure they understand that they could lose permanently a piece of their long-term memory.

Almost every brain doctor I’ve talked to feels there’s a very high probability — if your brain is still rapidly growing during your teenage years … there’s a high probability, it’s more than just risk, you’ll lose a sliver of your long-term memory every time you smoke this high-THC marijuana. Most kids don’t realize that. But we now have money we can advertise for that. We can provide more money to public safety to crack down on this gray market that turns into a black market. Each year we’re changing the regulatory structure to make it I think a little better.

Denver group takes step in getting pot clubs on city ballot
Studio A64 volunteer worker Janine Choung smokes a joint with a customer, left, at the Colorado Springs members-only cannabis social club in August 2014. (Andy Cross, Denver Post file)

Q: In terms of those changes, there are a couple of bills in this current session that you’ve said you’re not a big fan of — the marijuana delivery bill as well as the marijuana clubs bill. What are your biggest concerns about those respective pieces of legislation, and what fixes could be made, if any, to earn your signature?

Hickenlooper: The pot clubs, when the public voted on (Amendment 64), it was explicit in that initiative that it would not be for public consumption. So I’m just trying to defend the will of the voters in that.

In terms of delivery, that notion of having a delivery person go around house to house and dropping off potentially significant amounts of marijuana — any amount of marijuana — I think we look at that as just a hazard. And if we’re really serious about keeping marijuana out of the hands of teenagers, delivery service offers more opportunity for that marijuana to get into the hands of kids.

Q: And as they stand right now, would you veto them?

Hickenlooper: I haven’t stayed up on the amendments. I know both of those pot bills are getting amended even probably as we speak. I can’t speak to that until I actually see what the bills look like.

I try not to make predictions … but we’ve spent a lot of time talking with my senior staff about the pot clubs. … And certainly, as a state, we’ve spent a lot of effort to make sure that people wouldn’t smoke marijuana in public and this notion of pot clubs … I mean if somebody’s got an edible in their pocket and they’re in a restaurant and they take it out and put it in their mouth, I’m not sure how anyone convicts them of that. I’m not sure what the need for pot clubs is.

I see that most of the pot clubs they’re talking about seem to be, to me, some form of public consumption.

Let’s see what the bills look like … (all that) we’ve said is we have some concerns.

Q: Considering your background in the brewpub business — there have been comparisons made between the cannabis industry and the craft beer industry. Some have equated consumption clubs to taprooms — as social gathering places.

Hickenlooper: We don’t let anyone smoke a cigarette in a bar anymore either, right? So having smoking, I think, is a bad idea. If people want to go and hang out and watch videos or play table shuffleboard and consume marijuana, right? Ingest it. If that’s how it comes through, I’m not sure what difference that is between people just … I guess people can say they’re now not doing it illegally. I still would look at that as public consumption. But do I think it really is a terrible factor against the public good?

One big difference between alcohol and marijuana is that if a kid who is 16 gets falling down drunk, the evidence doesn’t seem anywhere near as powerful that there’s going to be long-term consequences to their memory or other mental functions. I’m sure there might be exceptions to that, if people drink so much. But when I’ve talked to the top brain scientists … they say just getting high once a week with this high-THC marijuana, you don’t have to overdose, you don’t have to go crazy, but just getting high has a very, very high probability of removing a sliver of your long-term memory every time that happens. That’s very different than alcohol. And I think in terms of home delivery, I think that’s a real issue.

Q: You have a teenager yourself. How does that affect your perspective and approach to this issue?

Hickenlooper: I think, like a lot of parents, I have been very clear with my son, “Here’s what I’ve heard, and when your brain’s growing as rapidly as your brain is growing, you would be foolish to take a risk on losing some of your long-term memory.” And at least when he’s talking to me he goes, “Dad, do I look stupid? I’m not smoking pot, I never have smoked pot. I’m not gonna smoke pot.” And I talk to his friends as well — I can be pretty obnoxious about the whole issue. I also tell them not to drink. When you’re that young, it’s just a bad idea to be drinking, doing pot, anything.

Q: Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman has invited Sessions to visit Colorado for a first-hand look at how the system operates here. If that were to happen, what would you say to him? What would you show him?

Hickenlooper: I think I would make the argument to Attorney General Sessions that I’d tell him, I opposed it. I thought this was too risky of an idea. No state wants to be in conflict with federal law, but our state passed this 55-45, our state supports it by more than 60-40 now. … I took an oath to uphold the Constitution of Colorado and I have an obligation to do everything I can to try and make this thing work.

And as such, this experiment — and I really think of it as an experiment — is going through an evolution that I think is generally positive. The negative factors, we’re seeing less of each year, and I would argue to the attorney general that the country has potential benefit to be able to see this experiment through to a natural conclusion. Let’s go a couple more years and see and get more data and really see, “Are we worse off or better off than we were before?”

Q: Where are you at now, personally?

Hickenlooper: I look at the entire arc of legalizing medical marijuana and recreational marijuana as something that maybe I didn’t think was a good idea, I didn’t think was worth the risk. But again, the people of Colorado have their own opinions about things, and they were pretty emphatic, right? 55-45 is a large margin, that they wanted to try going in a different direction.

And if I could’ve reversed the vote through some magical incantation, back when it first passed, I probably would’ve done it. But now I think we’ve made enough progress that I would want to … I’d want to go a couple more years and see whether we can make this thing work and have it be, ultimately, a better system. …

I asked an 18-year-old kid one time — this was two years ago — whether he thought it was more likely that he or his friends were more likely to get high with marijuana because the adults had legalized it. And he looked at me and kind of laughed and says (paraphrasing): “You know, none of us were scared of marijuana in the old days. Anyone who wanted to could get access to it. Your real opportunity here is if you tax it properly and get rid of the black market — and drug dealers don’t care who they sell marijuana to — and if you make it not worth a drug dealer’s risk to be selling marijuana, because it’s so inexpensive and so available already legally, then you’re going to reduce the number of drug dealers.

“They’ll still be selling crack and who knows what else — opioids. But at least they won’t be selling pot and so there will be a lot less drug dealers. And drug dealers don’t care who they sell to. So if you’re trying to keep pot and other narcotics out of the hands of kids, less drug dealers is a good deal, it’s a good thing.”

Q: So are you now in favor?

Hickenlooper: When other governors ask me whether I recommend that they should legalize, I told other governors that I think they should still wait a year or two, maybe three years. Get more data and make sure there aren’t unintended consequences. I don’t think there needs to be any rush towards a sudden nationwide transformation. Let’s make sure we get it right first.