Hickenlooper says Colorado faces great social experiment with legalization of marijuana

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Katie Couric and Colo. Gov. John Hickenlooper share a laugh during an Aspen Ideas session titled, 'What's the Dope on Pot?'
Lynn Goldsmith/Special to The Aspen Times |

The U.S. war on drugs “was a disaster,” Colo. Gov. John Hickenlooper said Tuesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, but he wishes that state voters wouldn’t have legalized marijuana use by adults.

“It’s going to be one of the great social experiments of the century,” Hickenlooper said. He isn’t placing bets yet on how it will turn out.

News show host Katie Couric interviewed Hickenlooper in a session called, “What’s the Dope on Pot?” It attracted a standing-room-only crowd to the Greenwald Pavilion.

Couric kept the discussion lively by mixing in serious questions about the potential for increased pot use among kids with a query of whether Hickenlooper “partakes” of marijuana in some form now that it is legal in the state.

Hickenlooper slyly took a sip of his water before answering, “No, again, I think that sends the wrong message.”

Sending the “right” message to kids was a theme of Hickenlooper’s throughout the hour-long interview.

“Kids are definitely our highest concern,” he said. All medical and behavioral experts Hickenlooper has talked to believe the risk is substantially greater than kids partying with alcohol, he said.

Studies suggest that the high-potency pot that is now available in Colorado could reduce IQ results by eight points if kids smoke or ingest before their brains fully develop, he said. There is a specific concern for kids ages 12, 13 and 14, he said.

No one younger than 21 can buy marijuana. A widely held concern is the legality for adults will make it more accessible for kids.

Hickenlooper vowed that he will press the state to spend the resources necessary from the revenues raised by pot sales to intervene whenever there is a sign that a youth is facing troubles that could be related to marijuana use.

Colorado is expected to reap between $60 and $80 million in sales tax revenues from pot sales, according to Hickenlooper. The first $40 million must be spent to construct new schools, according to the constitutional amendment that legalized marijuana in Colorado.

Hickenlooper said there is no evidence during the first six months of sales that teen and young-adult use of pot has increased, but he acknowledged it will take at least a year before more is known about the effects.

He relayed the story of “every parent’s nightmare” that a friend with a 12-year-old kid told him. The youth was allegedly approached in a bathroom at a movie theater by a stranger who offered to sell him a gummy bear for $5. The offer allegedly came with a guarantee that it would lead to a night to remember. The kid declined and told his parents.

Couric pressed the point that Colorado voters essentially sent a message with their approval of recreational marijuana that use is socially and culturally acceptable. Kids are getting a mixed message when they are told to stay away from pot, she said.

“It’s hard enough when Nancy Reagan is saying, ‘Just say no.’ Colorado is saying, ‘Just say yes,’ right?” Couric said.

Hickenlooper countered that the state is spending funds on messages for kids to avoid pot. “We’re working on a campaign saying, ‘Don’t be a lab rat,’” he said. The ad features a rat cage and a message that marijuana use at a young age can affect brainpower.

Hickenlooper said his other concern is dosages and labeling of edible products such as mints, candies, cookies and sodas. A law passed by the Legislature last session directs the Department of Revenue to regulate products so they are sold as one dose. Many edible products are sold in increments of 10 milligrams of THC, but others are sold with a total dosage that is much greater and are supposed to be divided into servings of 10 milligrams each. It’s confusing for people unfamiliar with edibles, Hickenlooper said, and it has sometimes resulted in people being hospitalized for excessive consumption.

The Department of Revenue also will work on labeling and packaging so that edible products can be differentiated from regular candies, according to Hickenlooper.

The governor stopped short of labeling Colorado’s sales of recreational marijuana a success. “The industry doesn’t like it when I say it, but it could have been a lot worse,” he said.

In addition to the problems with edibles, he said banking issues must be solved. Currently it is a cash business because federal law won’t allow banks to handle funds from marijuana operations. Cash businesses have the potential to lead to corruption, he said.

But Hickenlooper also said legalization has cut into the black market of marijuana sales. So far, it appears the people buying pot legally are people that were smoking previously, he alleged. Now they’re just paying taxes on it.

He vowed to spend whatever money is needed to ensure Colorado’s overall public health is no worse than prior to the vote.

In his summary, he said decriminalization would have been a “better first step” rather than legalization, but voters have spoken.

“We shouldn’t necessarily lock people up for selling it like we did for so many years,” Hickenlooper said. But he doesn’t want to encourage use, either.


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