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Professionally, John Hickenlooper’s relationship with cannabis was complicated but evolved. The new senator and former Colorado governor and Denver mayor would tell you the same thing, but Hickenlooper believes these experiences, which influenced his moderate inclinations, represent an opportunity to fuel the talks in Washington, DC
Hickenlooper’s opinions about the pot have not always gone well with the plant’s supporters. He was originally against legalizing recreational activities for Colorado and was one of the few Democratic presidential candidates in 2020 who didn’t speak out in favor of full federal legalization. However, Hickenlooper is backing national cannabis reform by postponing deadlines, and says he has spoken with his Senate colleagues about passing laws to ease cannabis banking and research restrictions.
We caught up with Hick to see what he’s up to in DC and how he sees the cannabis climate in Colorado today.
Westword: Have your Washington, DC colleagues’ puns brightened now that you are no longer governor of the first state to be legalized?
John Hickenlooper: [Chuckles.] Yeah i think they did a bit. More than a little.
How do you see the effects of marijuana on Colorado now that you are a little further away?
You get a slightly different perspective, but I went through my development during my second term as governor. The Healthy Kids Colorado polls came in, and we found that children stopped experimenting, using, or getting high more often with marijuana, and they stopped driving while high. So when I left office in 2019, I was pretty sure that the experiment I had originally turned down – and you’ll never forget that – had proven through an objective regulatory framework that the old system was flawed. We sent millions of children, most of them poor, to jail and it turned out that the health risks were not what we were told.
Medical studies are beginning to show fears that high-THC marijuana consumption in teenagers whose brains are developing rapidly could cause fragments of long-term memory to be lost. That was something that bothered me the most. On the one hand, however, it is comforting that you are not getting high more often, and on the other hand, there are early signs that it is not leading to long-term memory loss. [Editor’s note: Some studies show frequent marijuana use can lead to short-term marijuana loss.] In any case, I think it is time to postpone the timetable, let states create their own regulatory framework and move on to more pressing issues.
When you were governor, you often mentioned the need for more basic information and data to study the effects of cannabis and legalization. Do you think Colorado already has one of these basic pieces of information?
Yes. I believe the data from Healthy Kids Colorado is compelling and truly irrefutable, and shows that we were misinformed. Marijuana won’t 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 tabled an amendment to a Department of Transportation bill that requires federal investigation into this, but Colorado has been monitoring this for years.
I think we don’t have enough information in this area and we need to make sure that we can test effectively. At the moment there is only one strain of marijuana from the University of Mississippi that we can use for these laboratory studies. It would really allow the FDA to go crazy and test all of these things. There are different strains of marijuana and stronger THC concentrates so we could see the real facts. Right now, twelve states have no tolerance for the presence of THC in your bloodstream. That’s crazy. They say if you were tested while driving and smoked weed thirty days ago it could serve as evidence that you drove with impaired driving ability. You can test positive on a urine test thirty days after you get high.
Legal cannabis has proven to be more complicated and complicated than selling a few joints. You are in a special position after implementing the first framework on recreational cannabis, but how well do you think your fellow Congressmen are trained on the subject?
I was impressed with the breadth of awareness among the people in the Senate, especially those who really looked into it. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon is first on many of these questions. [New Jersey Senator] Cory Booker has looked at many of these issues and is working on extensive legislation that would, in fact, be unscheduled.
Do you see extensive legislation in the Senate this year?
If you talk about this calendar year, we’ll see. I am optimistic. So much happens when you try to get people’s attention and what a lot of people consider to be important politics. In my opinion the facts seem pretty black and white and it shouldn’t take that long to negotiate something like this because on most points it doesn’t seem worse than alcohol, so why deal with it differently? That’s what people said to me, and I pushed it back ten years before it was legalized. I said we didn’t have data and information and we don’t know what will happen if we legalize it. But in Colorado we know now.
Someone asked me how I could change my position on this, but if you come across new information that contradicts the reasons for 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 too, or is there still time to go?
There’s a little time left, but I’m talking to them.
You have mentioned postponing the deadline several times as the preferred approach to cannabis reform. Can you explain this and your preferred method of state cannabis reform in more detail?
I view this as analogous to how I view energy that is “all of the above”. Look at banking, regulations that would allow cannabis growers to take tax deductions and run their businesses like everyone else. There’s the SAFE Banking Act, which would allow banks and credit unions to work with cannabis growers without losing their charters. There is an insurance bill that would be aimed at cannabis. Then there’s more research [needed] all about cannabis. All of these things make sense.
Many of these bills have been approved or loudly supported in the House of Representatives but haven’t been heard in the Senate as bills like the SAFE Banking Act and the MORE Act vie for attention. But is that, oddly enough, a sign of political growth? You’ve seen a few cannabis bills in the past few years, 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 are seeing are a lot of different people facing this issue and they are all somewhat tangential. There isn’t a long line of people waiting to assist with the rescheduling. But then you have [California Senator] Dianne Feinstein introduces a law to expand cannabidiol and marijuana research. If you look at some of the sponsors, you have [Senator] Chuck Grassley, [Senator] Jody Hearst in Iowa and [Senator Thom] Tillis in North Carolina. These are all interesting Republicans who are known for their independent thinking. If you watch such an act, you are likely to be open to further discussion in the future.
Hemp has also become a major crop in Colorado. How did you view hemp when cannabis was legalized in 2012 and how did you view it when you ended your tenure as governor?
I originally thought of hemp as just another one of those possible agricultural bubbles. For a while, ostrich farming was the new way of making a fortune. It was everywhere and it was kind of hectic. I thought hemp might be a new hassle in the agribusiness, but I think we’ve seen many of the benefits hemp has in the past few years – and not just in Colorado. It grows with less water and is stronger than other fibers and strands of rope in many ways. It seems to have advantages, and as long as it works in the market, I think more and more people will be investing more acreage into growing hemp.
I don’t think you were completely wrong about the hectic aspect, when you think of all of the people who have been getting in and out of the CBD industry or are quickly switching to Delta-8 THC in the past few years and now the benefits advertise there.
Exactly. That’s what our system does in the end. Innovators and entrepreneurs choose to risk their money or make friends to help them risk money and invest it in the hope that they will come up with an innovation to create a product that will give them a competitive advantage. So we’ll see. You can only see real success in these industries over long periods of time.
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Thomas Mitchell has been a cannabis-related writer for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate, and general news for publications such as the Arizona Republic, Inman, and Fox Sports. He is currently the cannabis editor for westword.com.