Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper Upbeat on Marijuana Legalization

In a sign that may bode well for legalization in Arizona next year, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper sounds surprisingly upbeat about his state's bold marijuana law in an interview with New Times' sister publication in Denver, Westword.

Opponents of planned ballot measures in Arizona for the November 2016 election often point to Colorado as a failed experiment that Arizona shouldn't repeat. At an upcoming seminar by legalization opponents, for instance, six of seven speakers are from Colorado and will no doubt try to steer the audience toward the false idea that Arizona's neighboring state is a disaster because of marijuana. 

Hickenlooper, founder of a beer brewery and a former mayor of Denver, opposed the historic 2012 measure that legalized pot for adults 21 and older. But in the interview published on Wednesday in Westword, he says legalization hasn't been so bad, after all.

"Most people who were not smoking marijuana before it was legalized still don't." — Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper

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"Now I look at how far we've come, and I think there's a real possibility that we'll have a system that works... if you eliminate the black market, make it harder for kids to get marijuana. We can put more money into education for kids," he says. "The sky isn't falling. People thought it was the end of civilization as they know it. It wasn't: The sky is mostly still up there with the stars and the clouds."

Twenty-one months after the roll out of recreational-marijuana stores in Colorado, the one thing Hickenlooper wants everyone in or out of Colorado to know about ending marijuana prohibition is: "Most people who were not smoking marijuana before it was legalized still don't."

In Arizona, between 400,000 and 500,000 people already are occasional or regular consumers of marijuana. But except for the 80,000 medical-marijuana patients, most buy it from unregulated dealers. With the proposal offered by the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which plans to put a ballot initiative before Arizona voters in November 2016, most of those consumers would obtain their marijuana from licensed stores and pay a tax that benefits schools. According to a recent report by Arizona State University's News21, legal marijuana now supplies more than half of Colorado's estimated demand.

Prohibitionists who want to keep the status quo in Arizona, where possession of a single seed is a low-level felony, often point to tragic accidents in Colorado that may be linked to the use of marijuana. For instance, the "Marijuana Harmless? Think Again!" campaign, an offshoot of the Yavapai County substance-abuse program MATFORCE, has a web page that links to articles about Levy Thamba Pongi, a 19-year-old college student who jumped to his death in 2014 after eating a marijuana-infused cookie.

Yet Hickenlooper takes issue with the sensationalizing of every tragedy in Colorado that may have been tied to the use of marijuana, nearly sounding like Marijuana Policy Project spokesman Mason Tvert for a minute.

"People read about one failure of the system — a tragic accident — and they don't see the context," the governor says. "There are tragic accidents every day, everywhere: accidental deaths, prescription-drug abuse — over 1,000 people died from that last year. No one cared, but if someone died from overdosing on marijuana, it's on the front page of the newspaper. It would serve people better to have a sense of proportion."

Sure, there are problems, he acknowledges. Marijuana's still illegal federally, with one of the worst side effects being the lack of a proper banking system for marijuana-related businesses. 

"No checks, safety deposits, charge cards — anything that makes it easier to regulate an industry. An all-cash industry is an invitation to corruption," he says.

In fact, marijuana businesses do make deposits and write checks,(the IRS doesn't take payroll tax payments in cash, for example,) but they do it in a convoluted system that can be likened to money-laundering. That's not an issue with marijuana or cannabis businesses directly, though — it's a failure of Congress to make necessary fixes to a billion-dollar industry.

If Arizona legalizes marijuana next year, Hickenlooper implies, the state may face regulatory challenges in the fast-changing and growing marijuana industry. Voters will have to decide if these issues are deal-breakers or if they're outweighed by the benefits of legalization.

Seth Leibsohn, chairman of Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, a group co-led by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk that's lobbying against the Arizona legalization initiatives, says he was interested by Hickenlooper's "clear cautionary notes" in the interview. The negative results of ending prohibition might not be felt for years to come, he insists, adding that "guesswork" makes for bad public policy.

J.P. Holyoak, chairman of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, says the Colorado experience "is demonstrating how this can be done correctly... Even Colorado's governor, an ardent marijuana opponent during their election, acknowledged that taxing and regulating marijuana is working."