“We were the first state to legalize marijuana,” former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said toward the end of last Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate, “and we transformed our justice system in the process.” That statement was part of a paragraph in which the relatively moderate Hickenlooper highlighted his progressive accomplishments. As he put it:
You don’t need big government to do big things. I know that because I’m the one person up here who’s actually done the big progressive things everyone else is talking about. If we turn towards socialism, we run the risk of helping to re-elect the worst president in American history.
There is much truth to that, but it was pretty chutzpadik for Hickenlooper to implicitly take credit for marijuana legalization in Colorado, since he opposed it at the time and has only gradually come around to the view that it was not the disaster he anticipated. “It’s bizarre that Hickenlooper is seemingly taking credit for legalization in Colorado, and it’s somewhat laughable that he attempted to use it as a way to distinguish himself from the rest of the field,” Mason Tvert, who spearheaded the legalization campaign in Colorado, told Cannabis Now. All of the Democratic presidential candidates say states should be allowed to legalize marijuana, and most of them think Congress should repeal the federal ban.
Hickenlooper announced his opposition to Amendment 64, Colorado’s legalization initiative, in September 2012, two months before 55 percent of voters approved it. “Colorado is known for many great things—marijuana should not be one of them,” Hickenlooper said. “Amendment 64 has the potential to increase the number of children using drugs and would detract from efforts to make Colorado the healthiest state in the nation. It sends the wrong message to kids that drugs are OK.”
As late as October 2014, when Hickenlooper was running for re-election against a Republican who opposed legalization, he called voters “reckless” for approving Amendment 64. But by then Hickenlooper, to his credit, was beginning to acknowledge that the effects of legalization were not as bad as he thought they would be.
“It seems like the people that were smoking before are mainly the people that are smoking now,” Hickenlooper told Reuters in June 2014, six months after legal recreational sales had begun. “If that’s the case, what that means is that we’re not going to have more drugged driving, or driving while high. We’re not going to have some of those problems. But we are going to have a system where we’re actually regulating and taxing something, and keeping that money in the state of Colorado…and we’re not supporting a corrupt system of gangsters.”
That October, in another interview with Reuters, Hickenlooper walked back his “reckless” remark:
I was asked if I thought it was reckless to legalize marijuana in Colorado—perhaps risky is a better word. While I believe it was risky for Colorado to be the first state to step away from a failed federal policy given all of the unanswered legal questions and implications, the adoption of Amendment 64 by Colorado voters sent a clear message to the federal government that marijuana should be legal and regulated.
We have a robust regulatory enforcement system that would not have been possible without the partnership of the marijuana business owners, activists, law enforcement officials, regulators, parents, policy experts and stakeholders. Together we have worked tirelessly to ensure a safe and fair system that protects the public health, diminishes the underground market, and educates and keeps marijuana out of the hands of our children. We remain committed to carrying out the will of the voters, including providing marijuana businesses access to banking and maintaining a fair regulatory system.
In 2017 Hickenlooper rebutted then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ concerns about marijuana legalization in Colorado. “Colorado’s system has become a model for other states and nations,” he and Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman wrote. “We are confident that if we work together, we can maintain a responsible regulatory and enforcement model that protects public safety, public health, and other law enforcement interests.”
Hickenlooper’s shift reflects Colorado’s experience with legalization, which has been neither “reefer madness” nor “pot paradise,” as The New York Times puts it in a recent story. While cannabis consumption among adults is up, the Times notes, “state surveys do not show an increase in young people smoking pot.” Furthermore, according to a study reported in the Journal of Cannabis Research last month, “permitting or not permitting recreational cannabis dispensaries in a community does not appear to change student cannabis use or perceptions towards cannabis.”
Marijuana-related visits to emergency rooms are up, although some of that increase may be due to a greater willingness to seek help now that cannabis consumption is legal. While the number of drivers involved in fatal crashes who test positive for marijuana has risen, the Times notes, “a positive test does not necessarily mean the driver was high.” (More on that here.)
While “legalization coincided with a 20 percent rise in violent crime rates in Colorado from 2012 to 2017,” the Times says, “it is almost impossible to attribute broad changes in crime rates to just one cause.” According to an analysis by University of Oregon economist Benjamin Hansen, “the homicide rates in Colorado and Washington were actually below what the data predicted they would have been given the trends in homicides from 2000-2012.”
In the Times article, some Colorado residents complain about aspects of legalization that bother them, including odors from grow facilities and uncomfortable conversations with their children. But a 2016 poll found that only 36 percent of voters favored repealing Amendment 64, while most thought legalization’s net effects had been positive or neutral. A 2017 survey found that 65 percent of Colorado voters supported legalization—up 10 percentage points from the 2012 election results.
Marijuana is by no means harmless, but neither is prohibition. Coloradans, now including John Hickenlooper, continue to prefer the costs of legalization to the costs of trying to forcibly prevent cannabis consumption.
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