Exclusive: Salon interviews Colorado's governor, John Hickenlooper, on medical marijuana for autism

"Within a year we should be able to allow our doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for autism," says governor

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published July 21, 2018 10:15AM (EDT)

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)

The challenge, when discussing a subject as sensitive as medical marijuana use, is respecting the personal experiences of those whose positions may run counter to one's own.

This brings me to a discussion I had on the issue several weeks ago with Gov. John Hickenlooper, the chief executive of Colorado who last month vetoed a bill that continues to prohibit medical marijuana for children with autism. As an autistic person myself who has benefited from using this substance (albeit — and this is a crucial distinction — as an adult), I decided to open up with Hickenlooper about my experiences in the hope that it would challenge his point-of-view. To his credit, he welcomed the opportunity to have that conversation and was willing to be equally open about his own reasons for feeling as he does about marijuana and autism.

Does that mean that I agree with his position? Not entirely — but then again, I don't think that's the point. Even though I'm not as concerned as he is that marijuana use could induce schizophrenic conditions in autistic people who use it (there has been vigorous debate over the alleged connection between marijuana use and schizophrenia, as well as whether people with autistic traits are more likely to abuse the drug), I also realize that I didn't have the same traumatizing experience that he did with losing a loved one because of drug use. As a result, I was grateful that he was willing to open up to me about a painful story from his past in response to me opening up about my own experiences.

After all, it is unreasonable for people who support full marijuana legalization to insist that opponents listen to them without repaying the same courtesy to others.

I also appreciated something he said that could wind up being big news for the people of Colorado: "I think within a year we should be able to allow our doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for autism."

In the end, if we're going to create a more tolerant and open-minded political discourse, we need to do more than merely listen to other perspectives on controversial subjects. It is essential to respect the personal experiences that others discuss as being formative in helping them shape their views, as well as applaud those who are willing to alter their perspective after listening to others.

My next question is about marijuana policy. I know I sent  [Press Secretary Jacque] Montgomery the article I wrote about that. Have you had a chance to read it?

I kind of glanced at it. I didn't have a chance to read the whole thing. I'm dyslexic, that's one of the carefully hidden secrets. I’m a very slow reader, so generally, they kind of just fill it out. But yes, I have a general understanding about basically what it said, yes.

It's interesting because there has been a lot of coverage about your stance on medical marijuana. I'm not going to put words in your mouth. I'll allow you to state for the record what your stance is there. What I want to say on a personal level is, I'm on the autism spectrum. I was diagnosed when I was 13 and it's something that I've dealt with my whole life. And I can say from my own personal experience that marijuana is very helpful and it's always interesting when I read medical studies that say, 'Well, the debate is out, no one's really sure.' I've never used any other drugs. I'm kind of a purist in that way, but it helps. And I know from my own experience that it helps... Based on your own position, how do you feel about your own stance, in light of my experiences?

Sure. Are you on like on the Asperger’s side?

Clinically speaking, the American Psychiatric Association removed the term "Asperger's" from their lexicon in 2013. Now the term is "high functioning." Personally I don't like the term "high functioning" because I feel it unintentionally insults other people... But basically, yes, I was diagnosed with "Asperger’s." That diagnosis was then changed to "high functioning"...

Sure, and my niece has Asperger’s. And she's now 32 years old and living on her own in Nashville trying to be a songwriter. Remarkable, hard struggle for her because she can't balance her checkbook and things like that. And yet she really is a talented songwriter and she's making it work.

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My issue with — and this is the nightmare about having marijuana be a Schedule I narcotic — which means that we can’t use it, like we can opioids for goodness sake, but we can't do medical research with it, right? My caution with autism — and it's especially because of the people that do have let's call high, now you've changed my language, high functioning autism, or I guess even called high functioning on the spectrum, on this spectrum of autism — we also know that there are certain people that have an inclination to bipolar, it’s not a large number, it's not a significant percent of the population, but it is, at least I've been told, it is connected or it’s not infrequent, that it would be connected with someone who is on the autism spectrum. That they can take this high THC marijuana and it will trigger a permanent response. In other words, make them almost schizophrenic.

I know this because I have a friend whose son this happened to. And he was at Amherst College and doing great. Right before Christmas vacation his freshman year, he went out to a party and he got wasted and he never came back. And eight months later, he is just living on the streets. He ended up taking his own life, in an overdose. I think we're not quite where we understand as with every other medicine, if you want to call it a medicine. Every other medicine we test and we figure out how we can predict who it is going to work for and who it is not. We do it in a medically supervised fashion. And I fully expect, we're doing a bunch of tests here now in conflict with federal law, but I think within a year we should be able to allow our doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for autism. We didn't do it this year actually. I vetoed it just because they went to all levels of the autism spectrum and my medical advisors said that they were concerned with people at the far end.

I think there's still a way to make exceptions for people at all levels of the autism spectrum, but probably you need some safeguards, and we need to be a little more thoughtful than what the legislation we thought we saw was. You know, Georgia passed and Delaware passed laws to allow marijuana for people who are on the autism spectrum, but they did make a defining point. Not for everybody, but for those people that are severely autistic.

Okay, I appreciate that response... I agree completely, it is something that needs to be studied more. I just feel, yes, I just feel like I said it for me, it's always interesting when I read scientists saying, 'Oh, but we don't know if it'll necessarily help people.' For me, I'm a Ph.D student and I'm a journalist and I'm getting married and I've served in local political office and I'm not some guy who sits around all day taking bong rips.


I do it because it helps me, for me personally, I have a lot of anxiety attacks that are directly related to autism and it blunts the edge.

That's so great. It’s helpful for me to hear that from you. I mean we're all human beings, right? And the more stories I have and hear, the more I'm going to push back on my medical advisors. The kid who died was my first campaign volunteer. He was my first intern when I was mayor. I mean, I knew his family very well. So that obviously leaves a scar. Is that just anecdotal? Is he a very rare person? Am I slowing down something that can be beneficial to a lot of people at all levels of autism, just because I had that firsthand experience? I don't know. Maybe.

But that's what I'm trying to, we're trying to get numbers and then try to make the best decisions we can.

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Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Autism Colorado John Hickenlooper Marijuana Legalization Medical Marijuana