Katie Couric, left, interviews Colo. Gov. John Hickenlooper, on July 1, 2014 at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Katie Couric, left, interviews Colo. Gov. John Hickenlooper, on July 1, 2014 at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Credit: Jordan Curet / Aspen Daily News

ASPEN – Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was quizzed Tuesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival by Katie Couric of Yahoo! News on the state’s legalized marijuana program, now six months along.

Tuesday was also the first day that the retail pot market in Colorado was open to any party who wanted to apply to the state for a license. Prior to July 1, retailers had to have already been in the medical-marijuana business to get a sales license.

“Some of the anxiety has been laid to rest,” Hickenlooper told Couric about Colorado’s ongoing experiment in legal pot. “We don’t see a giant spike in adult consumption. We don’t think we see a spike in youth consumption, although there are some indications that are disconcerting.”

Hickenlooper was opposed to the legalization of pot in Colorado, which was approved in November 2012 by a 55-to-45 percent margin statewide and in Pitkin County by a 75 percent margin.

The governor said his main concern about legalization was the potential for pot to damage still-developing brains — including in people up to age 24 or 25 — and for pot’s potential to accelerate and exaggerate some mental illnesses in teens.

Toward that end, Hickenlooper said he’s been pushing hard for a new multimillion-dollar anti-pot marketing campaign aimed at 12- to 14-year-olds and their parents.

And not just because pot is now legal in Colorado.

“This has been going on even while pot was illegal,” he said. “Every poll we saw, 20 to 25 percent of the kids, in those age groups, said they were smoking pot sometime in the previous year or two. Those are high numbers, I think alarmingly high numbers.”

One campaign is going to take its cue from studies that show young teens can permanently lose up to eight points of IQ by smoking potent pot, the governor said. So the new campaign is going to encourage kids to not be the subject of a pot-smoking experiment.

“We’re working on a whole campaign about ‘Don’t be a lab rat,’” Hickenlooper said. “And we’re actually, right now, looking at building large metal cages with kind of a hamster water bottle on the side, and then putting them in front of bus stops or close to where kids intersect, just saying ‘Don’t be a lab rat.’”

Couric asked Hickenlooper if such a campaign would be effective, given the state’s seemingly warm embrace of legal marijuana.

“Colorado is basically saying ‘Just say yes,’” Couric said. “Right?”

“We’re not saying it is an easy journey,” Hickenlooper said, noting that almost every elected official in the state was opposed to legalization.

“That being said, kids have been getting a permissive vibe for many years,” he said. “It was already a problem that we weren’t successfully addressing.”

$80 million in revenue?

Couric asked him about a projection she found in her research that showed taxes and fees on marijuana growing and selling in Colorado could equal $134 million this year.

“That’s probably on the high side for the first year, but certainly for the second year I think it is reasonable,” Hickenlooper said. “This first year, I think we’ve backed off and are thinking something closer to $80 million.”

The exact tax revenue picture is hard to define because it depends on how retail demand settles out, said Hickenlooper.

“It is like any retail business when you start up,” he said. “You’ve got a surge of people buying it. Then you have more retail outlets, so you’re going to have growth, but then there is the question of ‘pull through,’ as they say in retail. How many people are repeat customers, how often are they going to buy?”

Under the state constitution, the first $40 million of revenue from legal marijuana is to be spent on new school buildings. It’s not clear yet how the balance of the funds will be spent, but the governor wants it spent in a way that helps ensure legal pot does not damage Coloradans’ health and well-being.

Hickenlooper said the cash-only basis for the retail pot business is still a concern, as under federal law, banks risk losing their federal banking charters by taking money from pot growers and sellers.

“If you really want to encourage corruption, make sure it is an all-cash business,” Hickenlooper said, pointing to a new state law that takes steps toward allowing some type of banking entity, similar to a credit union, for pot businesses.

“But best case, it is going to take 12 to 18 months,” he said of the new banking rules.

So far, the governor noted, the legal pot market in Colorado is “steady.”

“Well, certainly we see a steady group of people using legal marijuana,” he said. “I think the black market is certainly not over, but it’s been damaged.”

Regulating edibles

The governor said the biggest unforeseen development so far with the new legal market was the rapid production and distribution of marijuana edibles, with one result being some people impatiently eating too many pot products and then needing, or at least seeking, medical attention.

“You ingest this, and it can sometimes take a couple of hours before you begin to experience the, you know, the relaxation, the so-called ‘high,’” Hickenlooper explained to Couric and a crowd at the Greenwald Pavilion on the Aspen Institute’s campus. “And so people take more.”

Couric asked the governor if he had been “partaking.”

“No, again, that sends the wrong message,” he said.

The governor described a new state law that has given officials at the Colorado Department of Revenue the power to regulate dosage and labeling of edible pot products.

“They are immediately moving forward with rulemaking that’s going to limit each donut, each cookie — whatever the edible is — is going to be one dose, right, so you won’t have these massive concentrations,” he said. “And they’re going to have clearly marked symbols. They’re going to work with the industry to say, ‘All right, how do we clearly differentiate which brownie is laced and which one isn’t?’”

And, it seems, many people in Colorado already know how to get high.

“We’re fortunate,” he said. “It appears that most of the people using legal marijuana are people that were already using it. We don’t have a definitive study yet, but the anecdotal information suggests that we’re not having a big spike in adult users, which means we probably won’t see more people going to the emergency room or more people driving while high, or any of these other risks.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Aspen Daily News on coverage of the Aspen Ideas Festival. The Daily News published this story on Wednesday, July 2, 2014.

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...