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Legalization advocates slam presidential candidate John Hickenlooper over misleading marijuana claim

Democratic presidential candidate former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper speaks during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art on Thursday in Miami.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press/Associated Press

Marijuana Moment is a wire service assembled by Tom Angell, a marijuana legalization activist and journalist covering marijuana reform nationwide. The views expressed by Angell or Marijuana Moment are neither endorsed by the Globe nor do they reflect the Globe’s views on any subject area.

Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper was the only presidential candidate to bring up marijuana during Thursday’s Democratic debate — and reform advocates weren’t happy about it.

In his closing statement, Hickenlooper said that he’s a “small business owner who brought that same scrappy spirit to big Colorado, one of the most progressive states in America” and then rattled off a list of accomplishments he appeared to claim at least partial credit for.


That list included cannabis legalization.

“We were the first state to legalize marijuana, and we transformed our justice system in the process,” he said.

“You don’t need big government to do big things,” he added. “I know that because I’m the one person up here who’s actually done the big, progressive things everyone else is talking about.”

But as advocates quickly pointed out, the candidate seemed to be offering a revisionist history of his role in the state’s historic marijuana reform move. After all, he actively opposed Colorado’s 2012 legalization ballot measure, which voters went on to approve via referendum despite the governor’s objections.

Though his administration implemented the legal cannabis system effectively by most accounts, Hickenlooper acknowledged two years after the vote that he “opposed it from the very beginning” and that “it was reckless.”

“Hickenlooper deserves zero credit for legalization in Colorado and his attempts to claim otherwise are politically craven and amount to outright lies,” said Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML. “The only ones who deserve credit are the citizens of Colorado who took the bold and sensible step towards legalization, despite the utter lack of leadership from their governor.”


Marijuana Moment reached out to Hickenlooper’s campaign for comment, but a representative did not respond by the time of publication.

Hours before the debate, the governor addressed his previous opposition to legalization during a Reddit AMA session.

Pressed on his record, Hickenlooper said, “No state had ever legalized marijuana before, and I had concerns about how that would actually work in practice.”

“But when Coloradans made their preference clear, my team and I came together and created the first regulatory framework for legal marijuana,” he said. “It was a mammoth effort but the end result was much better than the old system. We’re no longer arresting tens of thousands of people — disproportionately people of color — over a joint.”

Users didn’t let him off easily.

“So… you were in favor of disproportionately arresting people of color over a joint, until the citizens of Colorado asked you to stop?” wrote one person, whose comment has almost 10 times as many upvotes as Hickenlooper’s.

Elsewhere in the thread, Hickenlooper said that he now favors descheduling marijuana at the federal level, allowing the Food and Drug Administration to study cannabis, providing banking access to marijuana businesses, and expunging the records of individuals with prior “low-level, non-violent” cannabis convictions.

But while he recognized his past opposition on Reddit, that same nuance did not make it into his final statement at the Democratic debate, frustrating reform advocates.

“It’s a little strange that Hickenlooper is seemingly taking credit for legalization in Colorado, and it’s upsetting that he tried to use it as a way to distinguish himself from the rest of the field,” said Mason Tvert, who co-directed the Colorado legalization initiative. “As a mayor and then as governor, he repeatedly opposed efforts to roll back marijuana prohibition, including the state’s historic legalization initiative in 2012.”


“While he deserves credit for implementing that law and finally coming around on the issue, he has no business holding it over the heads of the other candidates who support legalization — especially since several of them never fought it like he did,” he said. “If Hickenlooper wants to use marijuana policy as a campaign issue, he should avoid misrepresenting what he did in the past and focus on what he would do in the future.”

This seems to be something of a theme among governors of legal cannabis states. Like Hickenlooper, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, has also appeared to claim credit for his state’s legalization vote — despite having opposed it before the voters of his state enacted it over his objections. He said in April that “we’ve legalized marijuana” in Washington, seemingly falsely counting himself among the voters who brought the change about.

Read this story on Marijuana Moment.