Marijuana: John Hickenlooper compares teen pot smoking to underage drinking

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After Governor John Hickenlooper ate cafeteria food and danced with elementary school students yesterday, we asked him about another issue that, at least according to him, is relevant to youth: the regulation of marijuana.

Following up on a statement his office sent out last week announcing that Hickenlooper opposes Amendment 64, the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol act, the governor told us that he's concerned underage pot smoking would rise to levels of underage drinking.

Hickenlooper's statement said in part:

Amendment 64 has the potential to increase the number of children using drugs and would detract from efforts to make Colorado the healthiest state in the nation. It sends the wrong message to kids that drugs are okay.

Predictably, backers of Amendment 64 pounced on the governor's announcement and the initiative's opponents cheered.

Supporters of the amendment, who have been leading a bipartisan push to pass 64, see Hickenlooper's opposition as especially hypocritical and backwards given his background in beer with the Wynkoop Brewing Company.

Here's an excerpt from the statement Amendment 64 proponent Mason Tvert sent out in response to Hickenlooper last week:

Governor Hickenlooper's statement today ranks as one of the most hypocritical statements in the history of politics. After building a personal fortune by selling alcohol to Coloradans, he is now basing his opposition to this measure on concerns about the health of his citizens and the message being sent to children. We certainly hope he is aware that alcohol actually kills people. Marijuana use does not. The public health costs of alcohol use overall are approximately eight times greater per person than those associated with marijuana. And alcohol use is associated with violent crime. Marijuana use is not.

As seen in this new ad campaign, Amendment 64 backers argue that some people simply prefer marijuana to alcohol and shouldn't be criminalized for that, especially since marijuana is arguably safer and less harmful than alcohol.

After the press conference yesterday, we asked the governor what his response was to the criticisms of his hypocrisy given his history of brewing.

Continue to read Governor Hickenlooper's thoughts about Amendment 64 and underage drinking. After a short laugh, Hickenlooper said, "When I was in the business, which I'm not, we worked as hard as anyone could work to make sure kids didn't drink illegally. And yet right now, we know a tremendous number of kids drink illegally.

"Not as many kids smoke illegally -- underage kids," he continued. "Let's assume it was legal. I think almost half as many kids smoke pot illegally as kids who drink illegally. The implication by my critics is that therefore we should make everything legal and have that many -- double the number of kids that are smoking illegally as well."

Proponents of the amendment frequently point out that the initiative makes recreational marijuana legal for adults who are 21 and older -- and only in small amounts. Part of their argument is that legalization also helps make regulation more effective and would perhaps better restrict access to pot for underage individuals.

That, however, is not how the governor sees it.

The governor references studies that marijuana can negatively impact adolescents, saying, "Repeated pot smoking does affect their ability to hold on to information. If that's true -- and that seems to be a pretty factual basis -- what kind of leaders are we if we tell them that that's okay?"

But, Hickenlooper added, he is aware that it is a complex topic that could change over time.

"I understand the issues around prohibition and the contradictions. I am all too painfully aware and my cabinet is almost evenly divided on this. It's a hard question," he said. "Ultimately, as we evolve as a country, I think our awareness and our understanding of how we deal with all kinds of stimulants -- alcohol, drugs, all that stuff -- is gonna change."

And about the recent poll that shows a majority of support among likely voters?

"Polls are what they are. They sometimes are true, sometimes are not," Hickenlooper replied. "I've never worried too much about polls. We didn't do any polls when we tried to figure out whether we were going to take a stand or not."

More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana home grows danger study not timed to hurt Amendment 64, pot opponent says"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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