Warming Up to the Recreational Marijuana Industry: Q&A With Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper

By John Schroyer

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has been both an enemy and an ally of the cannabis industry over the years.

He vocally opposed recreational legalization in 2012 and said last year that voters were “reckless” in approving the law, a controversial statement that gave more ammo to marijuana opponents. But he also oversaw an effective rollout of Colorado’s rec industry in 2014 and said this spring that legalization wasn’t as problematic as he and others expected.

Hickenlooper now seems more supportive – or at least more tolerant – of the industry than ever before.

During a panel discussion on July 16 at the Biennial of the Americas conference in Denver that included a former Chilean president and the director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, Hickenlooper praised the Colorado cannabis industry for being “responsible” since the passage of Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana for adults in the state.

He also said recreational cannabis is an experiment that should continue, and he stressed again that many of the fears legalization opponents voiced simply haven’t come to pass.

The governor intimated that he thinks the most important reform for legal cannabis is the rescheduling of marijuana at the federal level, but that’s not something he has any power to influence. He also emphasized the importance of banking reform and providing marijuana companies with access to financial services.

Marijuana Business Daily caught up with Hickenlooper after the panel to see how his views on the cannabis industry have shifted and get an idea of what types of regulatory changes he may advocate for in coming years.

You mentioned on the panel that what you thought would be serious risks haven’t materialized since legal sales began. Could you expand on that?

Some of the newspaper accounts back then went into widespread marijuana use in schools, which has happened, but it was happening before. There doesn’t seem to be that large of a spike.

The number of people coming into hospitals – again, we’ve seen some increases, especially with edibles, but it hasn’t been the pandemic that we were worried about.

There were some people who were very seriously worried that within just a couple of years you would begin seeing (an increase in) the number of kids who were just getting high and not going to class and falling behind and then dropping out of school. They thought they would see much larger (numbers of kids dropping out).

You also said “this experiment does need to go forward.” What did you mean by that, and would you oppose a repeal of Amendment 64?

If someone were going to repeal it completely, I think we’ve gone so far down the road that we’re missing an opportunity.

I would lobby to wait a couple of years, and then visit the question of are those negative and unintended consequences, and are they sufficient to make us want to repeal? But I’d want to put it off for a couple of years.

It’s almost sounding like you’ve changed your mind since 2012.

Well, I haven’t gone 180 degrees, but I certainly have come 70 or 80 degrees. I still look at it as fraught with risk, but some of the stuff that was so worrisome hasn’t happened, and as you heard tonight from everybody, the war on drugs was a disaster.

You also expressed what sounded like an ongoing concern, saying kids getting access to marijuana is the greatest risk. Are there further regulations you would propose or support on the industry here in Colorado?

We’re certainly looking at how things like edibles are advertised. We’re very worried.

And this is where the rubber hits the road in terms of edibles. Many of the more responsible manufacturers of edibles put them in (packaging that resembles medicine), and it looks much more medicinal, right?

That is not something that is appealing to kids. They don’t think it’s special. If anything, they think it’s less likely to be something they would want.

So you might suggest new regulations on advertising or packaging?

Exactly. We’re trying to convince the industry that if they want the experiment to work, they’ve got to go up, above and beyond to make sure kids don’t get access, they’re not marketing to kids, and kids aren’t going out and trying (marijuana) more than they were before.

The idea is that this would actually have consumption by kids go down.

You also said at one point that the industry that has grown up is responsible. Could you expand on that?

We had concerns with edibles when they first came out, and the industry responded and said, “You’re right. And we’re going to fix it. And we will support regulation and law.”

I think that the industry, to a very, very broad extent, has said, “We agree that we do not think that children or kids under 21 should be using marijuana, and we’re going to do whatever we can working together to make sure that doesn’t happen.” That’s the responsible approach.

Are there any particular state or local regulations that you would point to as having had a particularly significant impact on the black market and restricting access to kids?

We lowered the taxes, and that’s part of that effort. We’re hoping once the pipeline fills up… hopefully the price will be close enough to the black market that the black market people will say, “That’s not worth the risk of going to jail.” And the penalties for dealing in marijuana and buying and selling it illegally are still quite severe.

John Schroyer can be reached at johns@mjbizmedia.com