Despite all the nice things marijuana legalization has brought his state — money, tourists, positive press — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has always been, at best, a reluctant and unreliable friend to the marijuana industry.
Hickenlooper opposed 2012’s historic Amendment 64 which legalized adult-use cannabis in Colorado. And as late as 2015, with retail marijuana stores open in Colorado for a year, Hickenlooper was blasting legalization as a “bad idea” and was telling other states to “wait a few years” before they followed Colorado’s lead.
Other states did not listen, and why should they? Colorado’s cannabis industry now records over $1 billion a year in sales.
Yet Hickenlooper — who is weighing a presidential bid against Donald Trump in 2020 — isn’t through with making things difficult for legal cannabis in his state. Last week, over the span of two days, Hickenlooper vetoed three marijuana-related bills that had passed the Colorado state legislature — so angering the marijuana industry that Colorado cannabis businesses are now threatening to leave the state.
Most notably, the governor unilaterally undid legislation that would have allowed Colorado parents to try cannabis to treat autistic children. He also vetoed legislation that would have allowed Colorado cannabis merchants to offer customers “cannabis tastings,” in a manner akin to the way wineries, breweries, and virtually every other seller-of-things to offer samples. Finally, he struck down a bill that would have helped allow publicly traded companies to invest in licensed Colorado cannabis companies.
During a news conference on June 5, Hickenlooper insisted that his presidential ambitions played no part in his decisions to overturn the will of the legislature.
He may have a point — if he were serious about winning support across the country in a challenge to Donald Trump, who on Friday signaled his possible support for marijuana-policy reform on the federal level, Hickenlooper would not have vetoed these modest advances.
Nonetheless, Hickenlooper sounded very much like an ambitious Democrat looking to fit a centrist profile, when he trotted out the tired-and-circuitous “we don’t have enough science” argument to justify vetoing the bill to provide cannabis to autistic children.
“While we are very sympathetic with families advocating medical marijuana (MMJ) as a safer and more effective treatment for their children, we cannot ignore such overwhelming concerns from the medical community,” Hickenlooper wrote in a letter that accompanied the veto. “In vetoing this bill, we do so on sole concern that medical efficacy of MMJ to treat ASD has yet to be fully studied by medical professionals and scientific experts entrusted to this role at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.”
As for nixing cannabis tasting rooms and investments from publicly traded companies, Hickenlooper claimed that allowing the industry to expand in these modest ways could trigger federal enforcement. He did not specify how, but he did say that expansion must be “consistent with our federal oversight, and not degrade the robust regulatory system that Colorado worked so hard to establish.”
In a press release, Hickenlooper did say that he will issue an executive order instructing health officials to start researching whether cannabis is effective in treating autism.
But since Hickenlooper waited until the first week of June to issue his vetoes — a full month after the end of the 2018 legislative session — the bills must be reintroduced next year, when Colorado will have a new governor.
So what does this mean? “In the end, Hickenlooper tries to wipe out the marijuana industry,” wrote Todd Mitchem in an article for the Denver-based Westword. That’s hyperbolic — Hickenlooper did not welcome in the feds, which would have been political suicide — but not by much.
With nothing left to lose in Colorado aside from his reputation, Hickenlooper sealed a legacy of creating unnecessary difficulties for the cannabis industry at best, and of doing what he could to undo the will of the voters at worst.
Baffled, disappointed and betrayed, Colorado’s cannabis industry can’t do worse with the next governor, who appears likely to be U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who vowed to see all three bills into law should he be elected.
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