Hickenlooper: Marijuana legalization ‘one of the great social experiments of the 21st century’


Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) speaks to a Denver Post reporter at the Western Governors Association annual meeting in Colorado Springs. (Tom Kimmell / For The Washington Post)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – A quarter century ago, John Hickenlooper opened the first microbrewery in downtown Denver. Today, as governor of the first state to allow sales of marijuana for recreational purposes, Hickenlooper is overseeing another revolution in controlled substances. And as other states follow Colorado, Hickenlooper says they can learn from his state’s trials and errors.

“They’re going to have the benefit of our mistakes. I’ve urged all the governors to go cautiously on this, because I think there are risks that we’re only just beginning to understand,” Hickenlooper said Tuesday at a forum hosted by The Washington Post. “But this is going to be one of the great social experiments of the 21st century.”

“I opened the first brewpub in the Rocky Mountains, back in 1988. We had to go through so many hoops to get a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms license to brew beer. They wanted to see every square inch, what equipment was where, if you spilled a gallon of beer you had to account for it and make sure why it wasn’t being taxed. We should be no less rigorous with the marijuana industry, and we’re going to be,” Hickenlooper said.

One of the challenges Colorado will tackle this year involves edible forms of marijuana, some of which contain levels of THC multiples higher than a joint. The state has yet to develop regulations governing labels that show just how much THC is in any given product.

Edible marijuana products have caused some of the most high-profile incidents since sales became legal in January. A college student jumped off a hotel balcony in March. A husband shot and killed his wife while on an edible high. And New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd consumed too much of a candy bar that had the equivalent of 16 doses of THC; the bar’s label didn’t recommend cutting it into manageable sizes.

But Hickenlooper said those regulations are coming. The state legislature passed a measure earlier this year to require the Colorado Department of Revenue to create labeling requirements — perhaps a stamp or label imprinted onto the product itself, not just the packaging.

“We’re also going to look at whether it’s going to be some sort of a shape or logo that’s going to be imprinted onto the edible, or some other distinguishing characteristic that’s even, when it’s outside of its package, to make sure it’s clearly delineated as something not for kids,” Hickenlooper said. He said Dowd’s column highlighted the need for such regulations: “There was one cupcake that was supposed to have 10 doses in it. It wasn’t clearly marked. If you’re going to have a cupcake, it should have one dose in it. Or if you’re going to have a brownie, it should have one dose.”

Neuroscientists believe consumption of higher levels of THC interferes with long-term memory development and can exacerbate symptoms of bipolar disorder and other diseases.

Hickenlooper’s office has been monitoring marijuana usage through public polls. He said Tuesday there has been no noticeable spike in marijuana use by adults; most of those purchasing marijuana for recreational purposes were buying weed illegally before Jan. 1. What concerns him most, he said, is that those polls show evolving attitudes about marijuana among kids.

“Our biggest fear with marijuana, without question, is that it’s going to get in the hands of kids. Most of our polling doesn’t seem like there’s a big spike of adults using it. Most of the people that are using recreational marijuana were using it before. But when you look at kids and whether they think they’re going to smoke marijuana in the near future versus the old days, they seem to think it’s a lot less dangerous,” Hickenlooper said.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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