This candidate hasn't broken through in the polls, but his opinions on marijuana deserve attention

Has Democratic presidential candidate John Hickenlooper tried marijuana? "Yeah, of course — I mean, everybody did"

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published June 27, 2019 6:06PM (EDT)

Democratic presidential candidate former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper  (AP/Getty/Salon)
Democratic presidential candidate former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (AP/Getty/Salon)

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper currently trails the frontrunner in the contest for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination by a wide margin. When he garners enough support to register in national polls, which doesn't always happen, he is in the low single digits. Unlike former Vice President Joe Biden, he is competing against nearly two dozen other Democrats who have much wider name recognition and larger campaign war chests.

Much to my surprise, when I visited my local barbershop and began to talk about politics, one of the customers waiting in line mentioned Hickenlooper by name. The man knew Colorado was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana under Hickenlooper's watch.

Truth be told, the same individual rattled off a number of candidates, as well, and he also did not identify Hickenlooper as his choice for the nomination. But Hickenlooper hasn't lost his shot: My fellow patron does not have a preference — yet.

It is an indisputable fact that when Hickenlooper was the governor of the Centennial State, he himself was initially opposed to marijuana legalization — and his views evolved slowly. It is also indisputable that Colorado has generated more than $1 billion in tax revenue since legalizing the drug for recreational purposes, money which has gone to a number of worthwhile social programs while simultaneously relieving the burden on America's criminal justice system caused by incarcerating pot users.

However, this does not mean Hickenlooper is an advocate for marijuana use. He has endorsed more FDA testing on the substance's long-term health effects and expressed concern about whether the THC content in pot is higher today than it was when he was growing up. (Per a report on that subject in The Atlantic: "So while there's almost certainly more super-strong pot available today—if only by the fact that it's now legal to buy in multiple states—it doesn't mean that all marijuana is ultra-potent today, which is how the narrative about potency is often framed.")

Hickenlooper has also admitted that he sometimes wonders if his own past marijuana use could have impaired his memory. He also expressed concern about whether marijuana could be linked to mental health issues like bipolar disorder, although he partially walked back a statement he made in an interview with Salon last year about marijuana potentially harming autistic individuals, such as myself.

If nothing else, the fact that Hickenlooper presided over the first state to legalize recreational marijuana as an experiment — and he can justifiably claim at least some credit for the success of that experiment — means that anyone who cares about that issue in the 2020 election should pay attention to what he has to say on the matter.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and context.

Let us start with the fact that Illinois became the 11th state [on Tuesday] to legalize small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. Colorado, along with Washington seven years ago, became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. Do you think that Colorado was a trend-setter in a positive way in that respect?

Well, I think . . . We were the first state to implement it — Washington waited a year — and we took that very seriously. A lot of my staff had real serious doubts. I had serious doubts. We worried about a spike in teenage consumption. We were worried about people driving while high — an increase in that population.

But you know, now we are seven years down the road, we haven't seen a spike in teenage consumption. We actually haven't seen a spike in any demographic except senior citizens — and that hasn't been huge. It's significant — it's over 10 percent . . . That's based on surveys of over 20,000 people that we do every year — public health surveys, so it's pretty good data. And we haven't seen — we don't think there are increases of people driving while high.

I don't know if we were the trend-setters, but we took it seriously but skeptically. We weren't out to try and sell anything, or prove . . . I mean, we took it as . . . Like [former Supreme Court Judge] Louis Brandeis said, "If states are the laboratories of democracy, we wanted to design an experiment that would have real value to the rest of the country."

That makes a great deal of sense. I'm also looking at some statistics that were released earlier this month, regarding annual marijuana state revenue in Colorado. In 2014, it was $67.6 million, the next year $130.4 million, then $193.6 million, then $247.4 million, then $266.5 million. And, as of this year, so far it's already reached $111.6 million, with much of that revenue funding education and healthcare, mental health services, youth drug prevention programs, as well as contributing to the state's general reserve fund.

Do you think that: A) This is something you're proud of? and B) This is something that could be applied on the national level in terms of generating revenue from marijuana legalization and using it to fund worthwhile programs?

Well, I'll give you some perspective there, and it does look like it's flattening out. So $266 million, of which within that number a lot of it gets used for very narrow programs, some of it goes towards the actual regulatory process and the inspectors — all of that. I don't think states should legalize marijuana as a source of revenue. It just rubs me the wrong way. I think we should look at the old system, where we send hundreds of thousands in the . . . nationally, probably over the years, millions of kids to prison. We made them felons for no real purpose.

And I think the one thing . . . We have no clear data, but we have anecdotal observations that we have a significant decrease in the number of drug dealers by taking marijuana out of the illicit system. That's a good thing. Drug dealers don't care who they sell to — and I look at not sending all these kids to jail. We should always be working towards a system of laws that people will obey, and that's always a difficult negotiation. Not everyone want to obey every law. That's . . . I mean, that's inherent in the way a free country works.

But the old days — back when I was in high school — I think 95 percent of my senior class in high school had tried marijuana.

Were you among them?

Yeah, of course. I mean, everybody did. It was almost universal.

And I think now — what we're doing is we're . . . Part of that money that we spent — that $266 million a year — now is going to things that are hard to fund otherwise. We use some of that for funding what we call wraparound services for the chronically homeless. In other words, people that have been on the streets for a long time — in many cases have given up on themselves.

They're difficult and expensive to provide a second chance for, and yet we found again, and again and again that if you could provide them . . . And by wraparound services, I mean if they have mental health issues, they have a doctor examine them and see if they need some sort of drugs to help their disease or their mental condition. I shouldn't say disease, but depending on what their mental condition is. But also people that have addictions — how do we get them counseling?

Most importantly, we provide job training. People that have been chronically homeless again and again: If we can get them into not just housing, but wraparound services and then get them into a job — it is like a miracle. You will see lives saved and turned around, and I've seen it again, and again and again. And it's hard to raise money — just the way it is — hard to raise money within a state budget to fund those types of things. And marijuana money . . . I think we made the argument — and it's a compelling argument — that there are unintended consequences of drug use. And, for some people, it includes a severe bipolar disorder, other mental health issues, other challenges.

Another thing we use the marijuana revenues for is — we have a fairly modest campaign but — a marketing campaign to make sure kids know that when they're teenagers and their brains are rapidly growing, they should not take this high THC marijuana. They're running a risk of losing a sliver of their long-term memory. Again, a hard thing for us to raise money for normally, but marijuana revenues seems appropriate for that.

I have a couple of points and questions. The first is a bit of an anecdote, but earlier today I was at a barber shop, and your name came up. And I'll be blunt, you have not been polling that high. So when your name came up, I was curious, and the reason is because you're known as the governor of the state that was among the first to legalize recreational marijuana.

Now, you're in a very crowded field. There are, if I'm correct, an even two dozen democrats running for president. Have you thought of using this historic distinction associated with your governorship to make yourself stand out? To say, "This is an issue where now Americans are coming around to the point of view that I took as governor of Colorado, but I was ahead of the curve." Because, as I said, someone brought you up in that context.

Yeah. So we've mentioned it, we've used it. We haven't . . . I mean . . . And if you want my honest opinion . . .

No, I want your dishonest opinion.


If you want my honest opinion, I think I'm the one person out of those two dozen people running . . . It's not just the effort we put into marijuana. We've actually done what other people are just talking about doing. We got near-universal healthcare coverage — we're a purple state in the past — universal background checks for firearms. Again and again, we were able to achieve the big, progressive goals that pretty much everybody else is just talking about. They've got plans.

The public hasn't caught on to it yet, but marijuana certainly — we closed two prisons. Part of marijuana is this: It's a recognition that our system of justice is inherently unjust, and we penalize poor people and people of color. They are disproportionately in our prisons, and we incarcerate by far — by far the largest number of people on a per capita basis of any major country in the world.

So are you saying that this is something that you might focus on to help your candidacy stand out from the 24 others who are currently competing for attention?

I mean — we have been talking about it. I don't think we're going to talk about it any more than we have. And it's not in my plan to go and try and . . . It's not my style to stand on the street corner and wave my arms trying to get attention. I'm hopeful that based on my whole body of work — all the things that we've done — I am hopeful that there will be a point where people start asking, "Huh? That Hickenlooper . . . I mean, look at that Hickenlooper! Do you know that he closed some prisons, and they've got near-universal healthcare? That they're the only state that attacked methane emissions [which is] 25 times more damaging than CO2 for climate change?"

You go down all that stuff . . . We expanded reproductive rights, and we reduced teenage abortions by 64 percent. These are all big, progressive goals, right? But they don't . . . In this current political environment, they don't seem to have quite the same mass that they've had in the past. But that's OK. I'm still going to get out there and keep pushing it. But I don't think we're going to take marijuana and try and put it at the top of the list.

OK. I want to bring up something you mentioned — not just earlier in this interview but in the interview we had last year — when I discussed how people on the autism spectrum, myself included, find that marijuana can be helpful to us. You discussed, and I'm quoting from the interview, "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."

Is that a concern you still have?

And I talk about this all the time: I don't know. I'm not a doctor, and I don't know enough to be able to speak specifically about the autism spectrum. And I probably shouldn't have said that. I am worried about negative side effects we haven't encountered or certainly haven't studied. And I think the one thing that I am loudly demanding is that the federal government decertify marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic so that we can have FDA-sanctioned testing, and really treat it like any other pharmaceutical. and understand where's it most successful and what are the risks. Are there any risks? Maybe the stuff that I was told anecdotally is bogus.

But until the federal government's going to loosen up and let science get to work, we're going to be a little bit in the dark.

I agree with you wholeheartedly there. I suppose my final question is going to be about your experiences as a teenager experimenting with marijuana. You said that 95 percent of your class did so. And you mentioned your concerns that people who are young and their brains are still developing will suffer adverse permanent consequences neurologically as a result of experimenting. But millions of people do experiment with the drug recreationally, including young people.

I suppose the question I have to ask is: When you did experiment, do you remember having fun? Do you remember having a good time?

Yeah, of course. I mean, I did it . . . Anybody, I think, who takes marijuana — it made me feel better and made me less anxious. And everybody was doing it. I felt like in some way I fit in. I do wonder . . . I didn't do that much marijuana, but I do wonder whether it affected some of my . . . when I can't think of a name or something like that — that it had some ramifications. But, back then, they're saying that the THC content was 1/5 or 1/6 [of what the THC is today]. Some people say it's as much as 1/7 of what the THC is today.

So, I do understand the attraction for why young people want to experiment with drugs. Again, it was almost 100 percent in my high school. It's a very powerful attraction. And, again, we decriminalized it. No one's going to get a felony for trying marijuana. But I do think it's important to tell kids that most scientists feel that there's a significant concern, if you . . . especially if you use it frequently and ingest a large amount of THC. That it's — there's this high probability you're going to lose some of your memory.

I just have one last question, and I can't resist asking this: But you talk about how marijuana can destroy one's brain or could potentially have adverse consequences —

I didn't say destroy, I did say . . . I said could damage long-term memory.

You're absolutely right.

Go ahead.

I have to ask this question: President Donald Trump, by his own account and by the accounts of everyone who knows him, has abstained from drug use and alcohol use. His brain doesn't necessarily seem to be a model of what I would want a human brain to be like. And by contrast, in my opinion, President Barack Obama is one of the most intelligent presidents in recent history, and by his own admission, he smoked marijuana. When asked if he inhaled, he said, "I understand that that was the whole point."

So I'm just throwing that observation out there, seeing if you have a response to it.

I would say not every pair of facts demonstrates causality.

I'm just saying I would rather have John Lennon at his most stoned in the White House than a sober Donald Trump. It might seem that way to some people.

I wouldn't disagree with you . . . I mean, I've noticed that as well — that he has abstained from all kinds of mind altering substances. And I think it does speak to his focus, and his focus is almost — if anything, it's obsessive almost. That would be . . . I'm not a psychologist, but — and perhaps that focus has something to do with how he was never tempted. Just by his — I mean, I'm sure there are a lot of reasons to it. I'm— again, we should find a psychologist and entertain ourselves.

I'll also say, if he did smoke pot, it probably wouldn't help with his fast-food addiction.

Yeah. I'm going to guess you're right there, as well.

By Matthew Rozsa

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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