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John Hickenlooper on the Future of Weed, the 2020 Race, and What’s Happening at the ‘Denver Post’

An exclusive interview with the outgoing governor of Colorado

Governor John Hickenlooper, above, was an early booster of the rail system when he was a brewery owner in Denver before getting involved in politics.

Governor John Hickenlooper, above, will wrap up his second term in Colorado later this year.

Mark Peterson/Redux

John Hickenlooper was a geologist, a brewery proprietor, and the mayor of Denver before becoming governor of Colorado. Now, with the end of his second term in sight, Hickenlooper appears primed to reinvent himself one more time. A popular politician from a Western state once rumored as a potential VP for Hillary Clinton, Hickenlooper’s name has been floated as a dark horse for the Democratic nomination in 2020. There have even been whispers of Hickenlooper and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, teaming up for a unity ticket.

Conveniently, the end of Hickenlooper’s broadly successful tenure as governor – he oversaw the implementation of fully legal marijuana in the state, even though he was publicly opposed to the measure – happens to coincide with the start of the next presidential cycle, something he is keenly aware of. 

Hickenlooper stopped by the Rolling Stone offices to talk pot, guns, the state of his local newspaper the Denver Post, and yes, 2020.

You were in Iowa a couple of weeks ago. John Kasich said no one goes there by accident. Is that true?
He was just causing mischief. He is such a character, and we probably disagree about a bunch of stuff. I mean, he’s very pro-life. But I do think it’s important to have Republicans and Democrats show they can agree on difficult, complicated issues like health care. If he and I can figure out compromises, why can’t they do it in Washington?

You two have a good rapport – how do you think you would work together on a project like, say, leading the free world?
We get along great. I don’t think we would ever run together just because, as he says, “Hickenlooper would never be my VP and I would never be his VP.” That’s always a problem.

I want to ask you about the Denver Post – another round of layoffs was announced a couple of weeks ago. It will now operate with fewer than 70 staffers. This hollowing out of local media has been happening around the country – in Boston, the Bay Area, Los Angeles. How important is a daily newspaper to a properly functioning city or state?
Every state and every city, every big city, but even not-so-large cities, have to have that independent newspaper, that independent voice. Teddy Roosevelt was famous for giving his business card to journalists, some of them muckrakers that he knew were going to come after him, but he would give them his card and send it over to the Secretary of Commerce and say, “Give this person total access,” because he knew without the support of journalists, he would never find out the places where they were really not delivering, where someone was doing things illegal or corruption. That’s the same today as it was then.

If we don’t have the Denver Post or the Des Moines Register, the Kansas City Star … You know, when they do find something about government, boy, they’ll smear your name for a week, even if you knew nothing about it, but at the end, you’re always better served as an elected official finding out what’s wrong and fixing it. And it is essential to have the free media to do that.

The newspaper guild has mounted a campaign to pressure the hedge fund that owns it to sell the Post – do you think it should be sold?
I think it’s got to be sold. Obviously, there are pension liabilities. They don’t feel they can get their fair value from it if they just keep squeezing it, laying more people off, to the point where people won’t buy it anymore. Obviously, they haven’t gotten to that point yet, but they’re going to get to it. They’re getting down to a real skeleton staff. I wish they would sell it, to be honest.

Is that something your administration would step in to facilitate?
I think you have to be careful. I think many people would say the last thing we want is government, you know, controlling the media. I don’t disagree with that. The media is the fourth estate. It’s the balance to the other branches of public power. I don’t know if you could provide tax incentives or those kinds of things – we give tax deductions to people that donate to National Public Radio, public television. You know, this revolution in technology has come so rapidly that we still haven’t figured out exactly what the formula is to monetize the hard work and sweat that in-depth reporting requires, but we’ll get there.

Colorado is one of the states that sued to block DACA – what do you make of the president’s tweets that “DACA is dead” and there’s “NO MORE DACA DEAL”? Has Congress abdicated its responsibility to the Dreamers by not demanding a deal be included in the spending bill? And Democrats in particular?
I wasn’t in the room when that happened, so I’m not going to criticize the Senate or the House because they couldn’t get it done. I’m not going to criticize the president. The bottom line is it didn’t get done. Everybody has talked a good game and said this is going to be part of the solution, but in the end, they couldn’t get it done. And that is so frustrating, because these are kids who came here when they were one or two or three years old, most of them under the age of 10. They didn’t choose to come here. Most of them don’t have a home to go home to. What do we think we’re going to do with these kids? Deport them into Never Never Land?

You know, when I first ran for mayor in 2003, we discussed immigration and these kids – back then we weren’t calling them DACA – but these kids who had been coming as little children, and they had no legal documentation, but they really didn’t have a home to go back to. Think about it: that’s 15 years ago and everyone has been fighting on both sides holding out because they want 100 percent of a solution, and these kids, their lives are being spent in the shadows. We fight over, “Is there a pathway to citizenship?” We fight over, “Are they getting some unfair advantage?” I mean, my god. Let’s, you know, secure the border, get an ID system that works, give everybody a five-year work permit, and then a five-year option to renew it, and we’ll worry about the details down the road. But let’s get people out of living in the shadows and let them get jobs and travel and visit their grandparents in Honduras or wherever. Right? Let them have lives.

Is there anything you, in Colorado, can do to help make that happen?
I mean, we try to reassure them. [But] federal law trumps state law, and so you have to try to navigate it as carefully as you possibly can for all parties concerned and, in this case especially, for the kids. We are supportive, we make sure that we’re not in any way doing the work of the federal government for them – a number of courts and judges have said “Local jurisdictions cannot aid immigration. They’re not supposed to detain these people just for immigration purposes.” As much as we can do, we do.

Speaking of places where federal and state law are in conflict, earlier this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo, an Obama-era policy directing the federal government not to enforce federal marijuana restrictions in states that legalized it — how is your administration dealing with that? Have you been in communication with the DOJ about their plans?
I’ve talked to Attorney General Sessions a couple times, and he is very clear. He’s saying that more Americans enjoying any kind of drug makes the country weaker, not stronger. He’s very clear on that. I can say, “Well, what if they were doing a bunch of drinking? Now they’re doing this instead,” or, “What if they were doing drugs before and it was illegal, they’re not doing anymore drugs now?” which is what our data suggests. We haven’t seen a big spike in consumption. The only increase in consumption is among senior citizens, which we think is either Baby Boomers coming home to roost or arthritis and the aches and pains of growing older – people finding that marijuana is better pain solution than opioids or other things.

But, Attorney General Sessions said, “I think it makes the country weaker, not stronger,” and then [he] said, “But we don’t have the resources to police marijuana dispensaries, and we know that our priority has to be heroin and meth and human trafficking.” That being said, he’s not going to want to do anything that in any way allows people to think that it’s OK to open a dispensary or it’s OK to start growing pot. He just wants people to be very uncertain about that and unsure about what the next step would be from the federal government, which is sort of what’s happening now with trade, right? With the tariff wars. But it creates this uncertainty, which is bad for business. That’s what Attorney General Sessions wants to do in marijuana. He wants to have that uncertainty, which he hopes will be bad for business. Just make people think twice before they expand their operation or make additional investments.

You’re a pro-business governor, how do you feel about the federal government deterring individuals from investing in or growing their businesses like that?
Yeah, but we’re in conflict with federal law, so I am like any governor in this position: I took an oath to obey and protect the Constitution of the state of Colorado, and the Constitution of the United States, so we’re [walking] a very narrow line here. I do feel that any business, if they’re going to invest their capital and hire people and have a responsibility to their employees, they should have some sense of what the future holds, and they should not be held subject to the suspicions that they’re going to be closed down – it’s almost like they’re being held hostage to those suspicions.

You initially opposed legalization. Based on your experience overseeing the roll-out in Colorado, what would you tell someone like Sessions about what you got wrong?
Certainly the worst things that we had great fear about – spikes in consumption, kids, people driving while high – we haven’t seen any of that. We saw a little increase in teenagers and that came down within a couple years. We’re still worried about that because with kids, especially teenagers, their brains are growing so rapidly, and this is such high-THC marijuana that almost every brain scientist that I’ve talked to seems to think you are risking losing a sliver of your long term memory, even if you only smoked this pot once a week. And your long term memory, that’s your IQ, being able to access your experiences and what you’ve learned, that’s what we think of as intelligence, so you’re risking that. We were very worried that by legalizing, we were making this more somehow more psychologically available to kids. We haven’t seen that. If anything, we’ve seen less drug dealers.

All our studies show that the consumption and time of consumption are pretty much stable from what they were, so we don’t think there are more people driving while high, or very few more. And we spend now, we get $200 million a year in tax revenue, which, you know, we’re a $30 billion budget, so it’s a drop in the bucket – it’s not going to pay for early childhood education or solve any big social ill – but it does allow us to regulate closely the marijuana industry. Getting the tax revenue allows us to do [anti-drug] advertising, and also to hire more police officers to make sure that they’re cracking down on [what] we think [is] a 50 or 100 million dollar black market now [in a] 1.5 billion dollar industry. That’s a pretty small amount in terms of black market. Fifteen years ago, the whole 1.5 billion dollars was all black market. Right?

You’ve also had some success passing gun restrictions  limiting magazines, increasing background checks, taxing transfers  how were you able to do that in a state like Colorado? What was the pushback like?
Oh my gosh, it was a huge pushback. After we had the shooting in the Aurora movie theater five years ago, that next year, 2014, we had our legislative session, and I talked to every Republican I knew – donors, business leaders – and asked them about universal background checks. Every Republican I talked to said, “No problem. Who wouldn’t support 10 bucks for a background check? How often do you buy a gun?” Universal support. We got into the legislative session, and it was just like pulling teeth. We couldn’t get a single elected Republican official to support us.

All the Republicans were saying,”Crooks aren’t stupid. They’re not gonna get a background check.” Turns out crooks are stupid. Thirty-eight people convicted of homicide in 2012 tried to buy a gun and we stopped them. There were 133 people convicted of sexual assault, 1,300 people convicted of felony assault, 420 people that had a restraining order from a judge – they couldn’t see their ex boss or their ex spouse – they tried to buy a gun and we stopped them. And [if] you really don’t believe crooks are that stupid, we had 148 people who, when they showed up to pick up their new gun, we arrested them for an outstanding warrant for a violent crime. So there’s no question it worked, but two of the Democratic state senators were voted out of office, so the blowback was amazing.

What do you think it’s gonna take to implement that kind of legislation at the national level? Do you think it’s possible?
Yeah, I think we’ll get there. I think we need courageous kids, like what we’re seeing. I wish I could say that we wouldn’t see more shootings, but obviously we’re seeing more shootings almost every day, certainly every week. And, at a certain point, the public is gonna say, “Enough is enough.” And they’re not gonna care how much money the NRA is going to give to this political candidate or that political candidate, they’re gonna say the time is up.

You’re term-limited this year, so I expect you’re spending some time reflecting a bit on your legacy – what are you most proud of? What do you regret?
The moment I start looking back and think, “Well, I’m glad I did that, and I’m glad I did that,” you know, then I get distracted. If I start looking at the future, you know, what’s next? I get distracted, my cabinet gets distracted. You know, part of the excitement of being a governor is you get to attract all of these talented people, and you got a certain number of days, and on my cell phone I’ve got a little calendar, and I can tell you, because I looked at it this morning, 281 days left in this administration. All of my cabinet have that, we all have our work plans, how much we’re going to get done every few weeks. You know, when I got elected, Colorado was 40th in job creation. Now we’re either first or second or third in the last four years. U.S. News & World Report ranks us the number-one economy in the United States for the second year in a row. That doesn’t happen by accident. If we wanna stay there, it’s competitive, right? Governor Herbert in Utah, he’s coming for us. He’s coming right after us.

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