Beer-mogul-turned-governor slams his state for legalizing marijuana

By David Sirota , written on January 14, 2014

From The News Desk

As Colorado proceeds with its effort to disrupt the failed drug war and host a startup marijuana industry, a powerful lawmaker who made his fame and fortune peddling a different, more dangerous, drug is slamming the initiative.

That's right, beer-brewer-turned-governor John Hickenlooper is deriding his state for overwhelmingly voting to end its prohibition of marijuana, a drug that is a) far-less-toxic than Hickenlooper's beloved alcohol and b) a drug the federal government recently called "the safest thing in the world."

Hickenlooper's hypocrisy borders on the comical. In an interview with the Durango Herald, the first-term governor insisted that "we should not try to get people to do more of what is not a healthy thing." He apparently expects Coloradans to forget that he himself made a career out of getting customers to consume lots of alcohol, which by most objective measures is "not a healthy thing" - and certainly less healthy than consuming marijuana. Likewise, as he rails on cannabis, he also somehow expects us to forget that he hasn't just personally profited off selling alcohol - he has also gone out of his way to more broadly brand himself as synonymous with beer drinking (just click here, here, here, here and here to get a sip of that latter branding campaign).

In the same Durango Herald interview, the governor additionally promised that “we are going to regulate the living daylights out of (marijuana)," and, according to the Herald, "said he’s committed to regulating it more strenuously than alcohol."

The contradiction inherent in Hickenlooper's position wasn't lost on Marijuana Policy Project communications director Mason Tvert, whose work leading Colorado's legalization campaign was recently profiled by Pando.

"I doubt Gov. Hickenlooper felt like he was participating in an experiment when he was making a living selling alcohol in a legal market," Tvert told The Huffington Post, adding:

"Our state has been successfully regulating alcohol for quite some time, so regulating a less harmful substance like marijuana is hardly something new. Does the governor want to go back to a system in which cartels control marijuana instead of licensed businesses and thousands of responsible adults are punished each year simply for using it? We let that experiment go on for 80 years and it never worked..."

"Every objective study on marijuana has concluded that it is less toxic than alcohol, less addictive, and less likely to contribute to violent and reckless behavior," Tvert continued. "If he is truly concerned about public health, he should be encouraging adults to consider making the safer choice to use marijuana instead of alcohol when they are socializing or relaxing after work." Hickenlooper's contradictions, though, go beyond just the alcohol-marijuana debate. After all, his stance against his state's revenue-generating marijuana industry contrasts not only with his aggressive backing of (and personal investment in)  the alcohol economy, but also with his specific attitude toward regulating other dangerous substances, and with his general attitude toward regulation as a whole.

In terms of Hickenlooper's specific attitude toward other dangerous substances, recall that while crusading against the alleged scourge of marijuana, Hickenlooper has been one of the most outspoken defenders of hydraulic fracturing (aka "fracking") in the Democratic Party. Indeed, despite mounting evidence that toxic fracking chemicals imperil water supplies and that fracking operations result in dangerous levels of air pollution, Hickenlooper has positioned himself as the political bulwark against serious regulation of the controversial natural gas extraction process. Last year, for instance, Hickenlooper appeared at a US Senate hearing to insist fracking fluid is safe, and then weeks later killed a bill to merely study the health effects of living near fracking operations. He has also threatened to sue communities that vote to regulate fracking, and has overseen a reduction in the level of pollution fines assessed against energy companies. Yet when it comes to marijuana rather than his campaign contributors in the fossil fuel industry, he is suddenly concerned about health and safety.

Similarly, in terms of Hickenlooper's general posture toward regulation, notice that this is the governor who at one moment attacks legal marijuana businesses and then in another moment insists that his entire administration's "goal here is to make sure we support the business community." The Herald noted that while pledging more regulatory red tape for legal marijuana businesses, the governor "touted the ability of state agencies to cut through red tape for businesses."

Of course, nobody is arguing that marijuana should be free of regulation. In fact, quite the opposite, as the architects of Amendment 64 named the initiative the "Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act" and included provisions for tough rules in the text of measure.

In light of all that, Hickenlooper's anti-marijuana crusade seems less like a call for fair and equitable regulation than a deliberate attempt to punitively target a legal startup industry for special persecution.

Perhaps he's trying to protect the monopoly that his friends in the alcohol industry have maintained over the legal market for mind-altering substances. Perhaps he's going to bat for law enforcement groups that fear they will lose funding if the drug war ends. Whatever the motive, though, the governor's anti-cannabis crusade seems to run counter to the principle of "equal protection under the law" - and the principle of respecting voters' wishes.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando.]