Marijuana

Hickenlooper Continues the Cannabis Conversation in D.C.

John Hickenlooper says he's had productive conversations about cannabis reform during his time as a U.S. senator.
John Hickenlooper says he's had productive conversations about cannabis reform during his time as a U.S. senator. Gage Skidmore at Flickr
Professionally, John Hickenlooper's relationship with cannabis has been complicated but evolving. The new senator and former governor of Colorado and mayor of Denver would tell you as much, but Hickenlooper thinks those experiences that have influenced his moderate leanings present an opportunity to move conversations forward in Washington, D.C.

Hickenlooper's opinions on pot haven't always meshed well with supporters of the plant. He originally opposed recreational legalization for Colorado and was one of the few 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to not favor full federal legalization. Hickenlooper supports national cannabis reform through descheduling, though, and says he's been talking with his fellow senators about advancing bills to loosen cannabis banking and research restrictions.

We caught up with Hick to see what he's been up to in D.C., and how he views Colorado's cannabis climate today.

Westword: Have the pot puns from your Washington, D.C., colleagues lightened up now that you're no longer governor of the first state to legalize?

John Hickenlooper: [Chuckles.] Yeah, I guess they have a little bit. More than a little bit.

How do you view marijuana's impact on Colorado now that you're a little more removed?

You do get a slightly different perspective, but I went through my evolution during my second term as governor. The Healthy Kids Colorado surveys came forward, and we began to see that kids weren't experimenting with marijuana at any higher rate, they weren't consuming more or getting high more frequently, and they weren't driving while high more. So by the time I left office in 2019, I was pretty settled that the experiment which I originally opposed — and I'm sure you'll never allow me to forget that — had proven through an objective regulatory framework that the old system was a failure. We were sending millions of kids, most of them poor, to prison, and it turns out the health risks weren't what we were told.

The medical studies are beginning to show the fear that high-THC marijuana use among teenagers, whose brains are rapidly developing, could lead to losing slivers of long-term memory. That was something that had most concerned me. However, on one hand, the fact they're not getting high more often is reassuring, and the other part is that there are initial indications that it won't result in long-term memory loss. [Editor's note: Some studies show frequent marijuana use can lead to short-term marijuana loss.] At any rate, I think it's time we go ahead and deschedule, let states create their own regulatory frameworks, and move on to more pressing issues.

When you were governor, you often mentioned a need for more baseline information and data to study the effects of cannabis and legalization. Do you think Colorado has any of that baseline information yet?

Yes. I believe the Healthy Kids Colorado data is compelling, and is really incontrovertible, and shows that we were misinformed. Marijuana is not going to lead to heroin. Some people try alcohol and it leads to heroin, and some people try marijuana and it leads to heroin — but it's a very small number.

What about marijuana-impaired driving? You recently introduced an amendment to a Department of Transportation bill requiring research around that on the federal level, but Colorado has been monitoring it for years now.

I think that's an area where we don't have enough information, and we have to make sure we can test effectively. Right now, there's only one strain of marijuana we can use for these laboratory studies, out of the University of Mississippi. Descheduling it would really allow the FDA to go crazy and test all of these things. There are different strains of marijuana and stronger concentrates of THC, so we could see what the real facts are. Right now, twelve states have zero tolerance for the presence of THC in your bloodstream. That's crazy. They're saying if you are tested when driving and you smoked pot thirty days ago, that could be used as a way to prove that you've been driving while ability-impaired. You can test positive in a urine test thirty days after getting high.

Legal cannabis has proven to be more intricate and complicated than selling a couple of joints. You're in a special position, having implemented the country's first recreational cannabis framework, but how educated do you think your fellow members of Congress are on the topic?

I was impressed by the breadth of awareness of people in the Senate, especially those who've really gone deep on this. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon is first on a lot of these issues. [New Jersey Senator] Cory Booker has immersed himself in many of these issues, and is working on comprehensive legislation that would actually deschedule.

Do you see any comprehensive legislation happening in the Senate this year?

If you're talking about this calendar year, we'll see. I'm optimistic. There is so much going on in trying to get people's attention and what many people perceive as important policy. My sense is the facts seem pretty black and white, and it shouldn't take that much time to negotiate something like this, because in most respects it doesn't seem any worse than alcohol, so why treat it differently? That's something people said to me, and I pushed back for ten years before it got legalized. I said we didn't have the data and information, and we don't know what happens if we legalize it. But in Colorado, now we know.

Someone asked me how I could change my position on this, but when you get new information that contradicts the reasons behind your first position, what kind of person are you if you don't change your mind? I had to change my mind.

Have enough senators changed their minds on that as well, or is there still time to go there?

There is still a little time to go, but I'm talking to them.

You've mentioned descheduling several times as a preferred approach to cannabis reform. Can you elaborate on that and your preferred method of federal cannabis reform?

I look at this as analogous to how I look at energy, which is "all of the above." Look at banking, regulations that would allow cannabis growers to take tax deductions and conduct their businesses like any other. There's the SAFE Banking Act, which would allow banks and credit unions to work with cannabis growers without losing their charters. There's an insurance bill, which would be pointed toward cannabis. Then there's more research [needed] around cannabis. All of these things make sense.

A lot of those bills have received approval or vocal support in the House but haven't been heard in the Senate yet, as bills such as the SAFE Banking Act and MORE Act compete for attention. In an odd way, though, is that a sign of political growth? You used to see a couple of cannabis bills in years past, but they came and went with few co-sponsors and no hearing. Now it seems like you have legitimate competing political interests at stake.

Yes, I agree. I think what you're seeing is a lot of different people showing up to this, and they're all somewhat tangential. There's not a long line of people waiting to sponsor descheduling. But then you have [California Senator] Dianne Feinstein introducing a bill on cannabidiol and marijuana research expansion. If you look at some of the sponsors, you've got [Senator] Chuck Grassley, [Senator] Jody Hearst in Iowa and [Senator Thom] Tillis in North Carolina. Those are all interesting Republicans known for independent thinking. If they're looking at an act like this, then they're probably open to more discussions in the future.

Hemp has also become quite the crop in Colorado. How did you view hemp when cannabis was legalized in 2012, and how did you view it as you finished up your term as governor?

I looked at hemp originally as another one of these possible agricultural bubbles. For a while, raising ostriches was the new way to make a fortune. It was everywhere, and it was kind of a hustle. I thought that hemp might be a new hustle in the agricultural industry, but I think we've seen over the last few years — and not just in Colorado — a lot of the benefits that hemp has. It grows with less water and is stronger in many ways than other fibers and strands of rope. It seems to have advantages, and as long as it tests out in the market, I think more and more people are going to put more acreage into growing hemp.

I don't think you were completely wrong about the hustling aspect, when you think about all the people who got in and out of the CBD industry over the last few years or are quickly transitioning to Delta-8 THC and now touting the benefits there.

Exactly. In the end, this is what our system does. Innovators and entrepreneurs decide they're going to risk their money or get friends to help them risk money, and invest it in hopes that they will come up with an innovation to come up with a product that gives them a competitive advantage. So we'll see. The only way you see real success in these industries is over longer periods of time.
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Thomas Mitchell has written about all things cannabis for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate and general news along the way for publications such as the Arizona Republic, Inman and Fox Sports. He's currently the cannabis editor for westword.com.
Contact: Thomas Mitchell