DENVER — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper — who opposed the referendum that legalized marijuana in his state — said Monday he hasn't seen the economic fallout he feared.
Hickenlooper, whose priority has been luring businesses and entrepreneurs to Denver, Boulder, and other hubs, had worried a view of Colorado's as the stoner state could "distort all the work that we've done" in presenting a pro-business image, he said in an interview.
"We haven't seen it yet," he said of the feared negative economic impact. "That's why we have been so aggressive and rigorous with implementing the regulations."
The referendum legalized the use of marijuana, as well as possession of up to an ounce, for all Colorado residents over 21. Titled "Amendment 64," it went into effect on Dec. 10, 2012, after passing by a 9% margin of the popular vote the previous month, though legal sales of marijuana didn't begin until January of this year.
Hickenlooper, to the fury of the referendum's supporters, opposed it, but has worked with the nascent legal industry to impose a strict regulatory and tax regime — and he said the industry has been as cooperative as he always thought it would be.
"We predicted that this would be an industry that would function like any other industry — that they would be no more or less driven or acquisitive than any other industry and they would be no more or less given to regulation and supporting regulation," Hickenlooper said between bites of breakfast burrito at a long desk in his Capitol office. "They look at their self-interest just like another business, but it's a whole different framework: No one has ever had a self-interest like this, where they have got to protect the right to do in a state what's illegal nationally."
"The industry was a great supporter of our very stiff tax rates; generally they've been supportive of our pretty stiff regulation," he said.
Colorado residents can purchase up to an ounce of marijuana only from specialty licensed retail shops. Currently, only already-existing medical marijuana dispensaries are eligible for a recreational license, though this restriction will lift in October of this year. Retailers must properly label all products with clear information regarding warnings, serving size, and potency, and any marijuana magazines must be treated like pornography by being placed behind the counter. Additionally, those who choose to grow their own plants at home are limited to six plants, with only three flowering at any given time.
Hickenlooper said his main remaining worry is polling suggesting that legalization has persuaded young people that marijuana is perfectly safe, when many neurologists believe it can impair a developing brain.
He also said the benefits of tax revenues from the legal product can be overstated.
"The other governors tease me, they say, 'I wouldn't be so rigorous if I had $130 million in tax revenue projected,'" he said. "But that's a drop in the bucket compared to how the world thinks of your state as a place to build a business."
Hickenlooper, indeed, is running for reelection on a platform of economic growth and pro-business management. His state weathered the economic crisis better than most, and his regular emails to supporters bely much concern that marijuana has derailed its growth.
"While the rest of the country's economy is slowly picking back up, we're thriving here in Colorado," he wrote earlier this month.
Weed also appears unlikely to be a central election issue. Hickenlooper opponent Bob Beauprez recently told ABC News that he'd look for "a way to agree with" Hickenlooper on marijuana regulation.
Hickenlooper said he was "surprised" that Beauprez, a former congressman, had chosen to enter the race. "I would have thought he would have supported a lot of our economic development stuff," he said.
Colorado, though, is the fulcrum of nearly every other divisive issue in the country: Hickenlooper is under assault from the right for his support of gun control, and from the left for backing the natural gas extraction technique known as fracking. Republicans, in particular, see an opportunity in tying Hickenlooper to the Affordable Care Act, which he supports, although Colorado's state-run health insurance exchange has not been as troubled as HealthCare.gov.
"I am concerned that it is going to be a difficult year for Democrats and I am going to be painted with that same brush," he said. And while he pointed to a rare decrease in the rate of growth in health care costs as a sign that the Affordable Care Act's cost-control measures are working, he says he doesn't expect that to help much with the politics. He also said he doesn't anticipate wanting President Obama (or any other out-of-state figure) to campaign for him.
"As a campaign thing, when I walk into a room and say how many people hate the ACA, half of the hands or two-thirds of the hands in the room go up," he said.
Hickenlooper also quietly came out for marriage equality toward the bottom of a press release March 3, a decision he described Monday as a "nuance" and natural evolution from his longtime support for equal civil marriage rights, while leaving churches free to make their own decisions.
"The debate had changed sufficiently that I think people can understand that supporting civil marriage is a way of saying I support every single right for every single person," he said.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
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