Vying for White House, Hickenlooper Looks Back on Marijuana Policy

Even now that he's no longer governor of Colorado, cannabis still catches up with John Hickenlooper.
Michael Emery Hecker
Even now that he's no longer governor of Colorado, cannabis still catches up with John Hickenlooper.
Using cannabis legalization as a platform to popularity is all the rage for this latest round of Democratic presidential candidates. Nearly every candidate in the blue party has endorsed some form of cannabis-policy reform, ranging from full-scale legalization at the federal level to letting states decide on their own.

Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who announced his run for the White House on March 4, arguably has more experience with the issue than any other candidate in this primary race: He presided over the state's implementation of recreational cannabis from the vote for Amendment 64 in November 2012 through early 2019, when he was term-limited out of the governor's slot. Under Hickenlooper, Colorado has earned more tax revenue from legal pot than any other state so far and boasts one of the most advanced medical marijuana programs in the nation.

However, Hickenlooper's relationship with the legal cannabis community has been largely lukewarm, as he initially opposed Amendment 64. Although he's come around on legalization since then, Hickenlooper vetoed three bills during his last year in office that would have allowed out-of-state investment in legal pot companies, added autism to the state's list of medical marijuana conditions, and started a licensing program for cannabis sampling rooms inside dispensaries. As he campaigns for the presidential nomination, the cannabis community hasn't forgotten.

But members of the cannabis community should also remember when Hickenlooper stood up for them, including his back-and-forth with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, after Sessions expressed interest in taking another look at federal enforcement of state-legal cannabis industries. Or when he slapped back at New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over Christie's dismissive remarks about Colorado's quality of life after pot was legalized.

Careful to keep a cautious but willing approach toward the plant, Hickenlooper readily admits that the sky hasn't fallen on Colorado since retail pot shops first opened in January 2014. He hopes that centered way of thinking can blaze a way to the White House in 2020. To learn more about his relationship with legal cannabis and how it's affected his political career, Westword caught up with Hickenlooper just before the 4/20 holiday:

Westword: With a few months for reflection and spending time around the country, how would you grade yourself on your cannabis policy while governor?

John Hickenlooper: I don't grade myself — don't be silly. If I gave myself a B, I'd be attacked by people for not giving myself an A. If I gave myself an A, I'd be attacked by people who thought I was conceited. Being the first in anything is the most difficult; certainly something like this, no other city, state or community anywhere in the world had ever created a regulatory framework for. Even Amsterdam only decriminalized it. They never, never taxed it and regulated it.

Are there any cannabis issues or resolutions you're proud of, or wish you could take another crack at?

To put in a framework that we were able to get off the ground — our voters voted in favor of this the same time as Washington did, yet we were able to get ours off the ground a year before — and we never pushed the system past capacity. We never blew the circuit breakers on the framework we created. We had sufficient inspectors, we had a system that was inspectable, and we had regulations that work.

Now I'm told that we have the lowest black market of any states that have legalized. I'm glad about that. We spent the largest amount of our tax revenue on youth prevention, and I think we've seen the results of that. Over the last couple of years, we've seen statistically significant decreases in teenage consumption. The black market is much smaller, and our legal market is big. That's how you get rid of a black market.

That's all good, but is it perfect? No. We still do have a black market. It's smaller than most other states, but it's still there. There were things we didn't get right the first time. We didn't anticipate how rapidly edibles would come into the market.

How do you think Colorado's cannabis community views your term, and your implementation of legal cannabis?

I have no idea. It's not something I've ever done a poll on — but as Abraham Lincoln said, "I do the very best I know how."

The hemp and CBD industries have really exploded over the last several years, with Colorado at the center of it. Did you see this coming at such a grand scale?

We did see it coming, because when Don Brown came in as secretary of agriculture, it was way up on his priority. He thought this would be a very useful crop in parts of the state that didn't have enough moisture. He was very optimistic. I was probably one of the more skeptical ones, but I couldn't see a downside. Any time we can find a way to give farmers in Colorado an additional tool to bring money into their communities, to get revenue off their land, we try to support it — and Don Brown's been a great supporter of the hemp industry. (Note: Brown left his post as secretary of agriculture in January.)

What challenges do you see Colorado facing with legal cannabis going forward?

To a certain extent, the largest challenges have passed. We really felt it was important that we do this without bending the rules for one side or the other. There were a lot of people in Colorado who wanted this experiment to fail, and a lot of people who wanted it to succeed. We were the first state to do this, and since states essentially are the laboratories of democracy, we wanted the laboratory to have the right equipment — and it could prove, once and for all, that this could be a better system than the old system.

Everybody quickly forgets that the old system sent millions of kids, most of them from low-income neighborhoods, to prison. That in and of itself was a pretty powerful reason to take on the experiment. But we also wanted to make sure that we could demonstrate that we weren't seeing increasing hazards to the rest of society — that we weren't seeing more people driving while high, that we weren't seeing more teenagers frequently using high-THC marijuana — and I think most of that stuff, we've demonstrated.

I realize there's been pushback from parts of the media and certain other cities, where they say this hasn't gone so well and we have all these problems. But when I talk with people who aren't in the business, who are observing — maybe they're occasional users, maybe not — when I talk with those people, they seem pretty receptive to this change that's probably here for good.

A lot of those issues — driving stoned, learning more about teenage use and so on — were hard to compare to pre-legalization times because of the lack of baseline data that sufficiently and contextually measured crimes specific to cannabis. You were vocal about the need for more baseline data before making conclusions. Do you think we've reached a point where that data is becoming available?

We're definitely getting some data on those questions, but we could still do a better job. Especially traffic fatalities and the connections to marijuana. The tests they're doing are still predominantly a urine-based measurement, which could mean somebody used marijuana thirty or twenty days before, but it had no effect on the accident. The blood test is much more expensive. We offered to have the state pay for it, but in this state, we can't force local medical personnel on what tests they're going to do.

Some Democratic candidates have been pretty vocal in their desire for federal legalization, but you've been more tempered and have said it should be more of a states issue. Can you expound on that?

I think the federal government should decriminalize it in any state that has chosen to legalize it. In those states where it's been legalized, the federal government should allow banking, and I think the federal government should de-certify it as a Schedule I narcotic, so we can actually begin testing it. I think that tomorrow, the federal government should empower and budget the FDA to get going on longitudinal testing, so we can actually see what medical circumstances marijuana is most useful for and make sure there aren't — and I don't think there are — but make sure there aren't harmful side effects with certain populations. I really don't see why the federal government can't do that right now.

But I do believe that we shouldn't go into Maine or Alabama and tell them they've got to legalize something that the vast majority of their populations don't want to legalize. I just don't think that's the way our federal system is meant to work.

When you didn't make a pro-cannabis decision as governor or don't make a glowing endorsement of it while on the campaign trail, cannabis advocates like to bring up your past in the craft-beer industry and criticize you for what they see as hypocritical treatment. What do you think of that reasoning?

I'm not in the beer business anymore. I sold my stake in Wynkoop back in 2007, so that's nonsense. But I've never been somebody who leads the fight that alcohol is safer or better than marijuana. I've been immersed in this issue for a number of years, and I recognize that there were, to my knowledge, no medical fatalities caused by cannabis in the country last year, when there was something close to 40,000 fatalities last year as a consequence of alcohol. I'm not defending one or the other, but our country decided many generations ago that beer was a legal way for people to relax, enjoy their meals or watch a ball game. We legalized alcohol in 1933, before I was alive.

The country has been adamantly against marijuana for a long, long time. When I was kid, they had all kinds of ridiculous movies to make the connection that marijuana was no different than heroin. And I can say that up until I was fifteen, I didn't know that there was a difference between marijuana and heroin. That was the kind of language we saw. Now we're going through a process that's trying to change federal law that's been in place from the beginning, and if it were easy, someone else would've done it.

What I think is more likely is that because I had experience with a highly regulated product like alcohol, I was a fairer witness and a better person to have at the controls to make sure this experiment wasn't slanted one way or the other. I think there's a legitimate argument that having that discipline allowed a lot of people who were unconcerned, in the middle or weren't invested in either side to look at legal marijuana more favorably, because the way we implemented it was rigorous. We demonstrated a new framework where teenagers wouldn't get high more often. In fact, I think because of the way we implemented it, there are fewer teenagers getting high.

Do you think it's fair to compare alcohol and cannabis?

You can compare anything. You can compare apples and oranges, but obviously they're different. But now, [marijuana and alcohol] are both highly regulated products that a broad range of people consume that help them relax and enjoy their lives. So in that sense, they're similar.

They're both highly regulated, consumed by a broad cross-section of people, and in both cases we try to remain especially rigorous that kids don't get into it. Sixteen- and eighteen-year-olds shouldn't be drinking any more than they should be getting high on THC.

As cannabis becomes more mainstream, how big of a part do you think it's playing in state and national elections?

You know how politics are nowadays: Everybody's looking for an advantage any way they can. I've had no shortage of wise political advisers who have pushed me to get in front of this and say I want to legalize it for the entire country. "Say this, do that, and talk about this. Brag about that."

You know, I take it more seriously than that. We had a difficult challenge that no other city or state had ever done. I think the fact that we were rigorous and disciplined in how we implemented a framework of something that clearly hadn't been regulated, I think that's had a lot to do with the success of the program.