Governor John Hickenlooper says when it comes to legal marijuana, the future is still somewhat hazy in Colorado. Recreational pot became legal last year and retailers started selling it in January. Hickenlooper looked back yesterday on how the process has gone so far, in a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.
Before more than 50 percent of Colorado voters passed Amendment 64 in 2012, Governor John Hickenlooper was against it. After the election, he jokingly said, "Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug so don’t break out the Cheetos or gold fish too quickly."
A lot has changed since then as Colorado has ushered in this new industry.
"Being the first state that does something - I mean really, I don’t think there’s another country on earth (that’s doing something like this). We’re not talking about decriminalizing but legalizing, so you have to set up a regulatory framework, then a taxation system and all kinds of checks and measures, there’s just a lot that can go wrong," Hickenlooper said Tuesday.
There have been bumps in the road. Hickenlooper points out how edible products, like marijuana-infused cookies and brownies, came on the scene faster than expected. Some people ended up in the hospital after eating too much. The governor signed two measures into law this spring requiring special labels for edibles and regulating their dosage.
Another concern, says Hickenlooper, is the impact of marijuana on young people and their developing brains.
"So many of the neuroscientists around are very concerned about this high THC marijuana and what it can do the brain that’s still in the process of growing."
There are indications more children are using pot. The Denver Post reports the number of kids coming into the state’s largest pediatric emergency department after accidentally eating marijuana is double compared to the year before.
Still, Hickenlooper says the burgeoning industry has had successes. He thinks it’s put a dent in the black market and the public seems accepting of relatively high taxes and rigorous regulation. Not to mention, there’s a windfall from taxes on marijuana.
"I think we’re going to have the first year, maybe $60 or $80 million, which will allow us to address a lot of the issues and a lot of our concerns," he says.
Longtime TV personality Katie Couric interviewed Hickenlooper at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Couric: "Well, there’s a lot you just talked about so let me sort of pick each area. One is the tax windfall you’ve received. I know it’s been a big boon since January - you’ve raised nearly $11 million and some experts predict you could rake in a whopping $134 million. Is that right?"
Hickenlooper: "Yeah, but since it’s never been done before it’s hard to get a handle on the data we’re using to make these projections."
The first $40 million of tax revenue will go toward school capital construction. After that, Hickenlooper would like to see dollars head to marijuana education and keeping it out of the hands of teens struggling with mental illness.
Hickenlooper: "For kids who have bipolar, indications of things like that, there’s a lot of smart people who think - all of a sudden those kids start spending more time in the basement, all of the sudden the kid drops out of school and runs away from home. Once those kids get off the tracks like that, it’s very expensive to reconnect them to a constructive life."
Couric: "And, studies show that if you’re predisposed to things like schizophrenia (using marijuana) could put you over the edge."
Hickenlooper: "There is a high probability that it will at least accelerate the onset and exaggerate the symptoms of whatever that condition is."
One problem the state continues to grapple with is banks refusing to handle the accounts of marijuana businesses. Federal law, which still consider pot illegal, is at the heart of the issue.
In the end, Hickenlooper says the onset of legal weed in the state wasn’t an overwhelming success but it could have been worse.
"We’ve made mistakes," he says, "And, we’ve had problems, we’ve tried to learn from them and aggressively address how to rectify the problem. And, if you look at setting up a regulatory environment from scratch, I think we’ve done a commendable job. Am I satisfied? No. We’ve got to do better."