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Colorado's governor vows to “confront” Trump's DOJ on a marijuana crackdown

Watch VICE New’s interview with Gov. Hickenlooper on the February 28 edition VICE News Tonight.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper says he’s seen “a real sense of anxiety and fear” among residents of his state under Donald Trump’s Administration. He’s warning the Trump White House that Colorado “will confront them” if the Justice Department steps up enforcement of federal marijuana laws.

But during a wide-ranging interview with VICE News at the end of his four-day visit to Washington for the National Governors’ Association meeting, Hickenlooper said he still wants to work with the president wherever possible.


“You have to give him the benefit of the doubt, and and look at those places where you can help him improve the economy, help him make our communities safer,” he said.

The careful triangulation was driven in part by necessity — Hickenlooper is a Democratic governor in a state that, though it went heavily for Hillary Clinton in 2016, still has a state legislature divided between the two parties.

Hickenlooper’s message is also driven by opportunity. He’s been mentioned as a top Democratic presidential prospect, precisely for that ability to walk the middle road between the two parties. Still, Hickenlooper insists he’s not thinking about 2020 yet — ”[There’s] so much we want to get done in the last two years. If I’m going to sit there and be daydreaming about, what’s my next gig, I’m not going to get it done,” he said.

And it was clear during the interview that the Democratic Party’s prospects in 2018 and beyond were on his mind.

“In terms of winning the next election, a big part of that is not alienating the people in the middle. And I think when you automatically start saying, ‘This guy is crazy’ […] a lot of those people [who voted for Trump say] ‘I’m not going to listen to him. He’s attacking the person I just voted for, just elected, and we haven’t even seen what he’s done yet,’” Hickenlooper said, in explaining his reluctance to criticize the president.

“I’m looking down the road and I want to make sure that we’re not wasting our ammunition before we can get the benefit from it.”


This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

VICE News: You described the issue in 2016 as a messaging or a focus issue. How much of that was Hillary Clinton’s fault at the end of the day?

HICKENLOOPER: I think you have to look at a much broader range. There are 32 states in America where the Republican Party controls both houses of the state legislature. The state Senate and the state House — 32 states. That’s the first time that’s ever happened, to my knowledge, ever — certainly since the two party system evolved into its present configuration. That should tell us something, right? That we’ve been doing something wrong, right?

That should be a wake up call for Democrats everywhere. It’s how we talk about [jobs] — it’s also, we haven’t put the money into attracting young people, or people of all ages, to be fair, into local politics.

I grew up in the ‘60s and I marched on Washington against the Vietnam War. I was at the first Earth Day in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. What people forget is 1968, Richard Nixon still won. 1972 — he won by almost 60-40. Protests are great, but they’ve got to translate. And I think this is happening right now. It’s gotta translate into the weekly effort of making phone calls, or bringing people together, talking about language and issues.

VICE News: You were at the White House yesterday. What surprised you about the president?

HICKENLOOPER: He was candid and engaging, not confrontational. If anything, he was self-deprecating, which I hadn’t seen a lot of on TV.


When he asked for questions […] lots of hands were in the air. But only Republicans were called on. And evidently there was a special kind of a press conference afterwards with Republican governors but no Democratic governors. That surprises me a little bit.

That is pretty transparent, that you’re kind of trying to control the message, and how it gets reported, and who says what that’s going to get caught on TV. I guess I’m used to a more balanced presentation of the different points of view.

VICE NEWS: Doesn’t that make it tougher to work with [President Trump]? I mean do you see any prospects for working with the administration when he’s making moves like that?

HICKENLOOPER: Well, we’ll see. I mean, you can’t be in these jobs without being pretty optimistic.

We’re gonna have to work with with Washington. We’re gonna have to work with this administration. So I’m careful not to criticize the president, and will continue to do that in the sense of, I’m not trying to gather attention or put myself on a raised platform in some way, but also, I know when you start criticizing people it makes it harder for anybody to open up and work with you.

And we want to make sure that the president knows we want to we want to be partners. Whether it’s education improvement, whether it’s making sure that that you know, if we’re going to cut some of the red tape in the EPA I can accept that. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, right? Let’s make sure that we have our environmental protections.


VICE News: With respect to immigration, I think that’s been one of [President Trump’s] most controversial moves in office, is stepping up enforcement. Does that concern you, as governor of a state with a huge Hispanic population? Do you think he made the right move or does he need to tweak that policy?

HICKENLOOPER: I can’t remember ever seeing and hearing more fear among the people of Colorado. And it wasn’t just the Hispanic community. It wasn’t just immigrants. There has been a real sense of anxiety and fear, you know, that next level beyond anxiety. But again, you asked how the president surprised me when we met with him yesterday morning. He was out front, he said, ‘We are not going to round up and deport people unless there’s a significant connection to serious criminal activity.’ I wish that had been in the executive order, but it’s a big deal that he said that.

We should be all taking a deep breath and saying, ‘All right, we feared this — now, this is not something we have to worry about.’ But obviously, everyone I’ve talked to says, ‘let’s see what happens.’ And there’s no one saying that this discussion is over.

VICE News: We have seen evidence to the contrary. So how do you give them the benefit of the doubt at this point? It seems that he’s saying one thing and doing another thing.

HICKENLOOPER: Well he has now said it, publicly. To my knowledge that was the first time where he came out in front of all the TV cameras and said, ‘Listen we’re not going to round up people arrest them detain them and deport them unless there’s a direct connection to serious criminal activity.’ At this point he’s said that publicly. I trust the media that they will come down en masse if if that turns out not to be the case.


VICE News: What do you do as governor of Colorado to protect the population of your state if it turns out not to be true?

HICKENLOOPER: Well obviously, we are not going to provide any support. And there are a number of Supreme Court cases that say that there is no way the federal government can compel your state police or your local police forces to go out and use their resources. He wants local states to do a lot of the work, but doesn’t address who’s going to pay. Obviously I think he’s expecting states to pay.

Well, we’ve got our own priorities. Our police forces, our state patrol have priorities in terms of how to keep our community safe. One thing they are working hard [on] is to build trust within the entire community because one really important way to keep communities safe is through informants, and tips. And you get those informants and tips by having a level of trust. If you start being involved in rounding up people that are, you know, breaking apart families and people that are just doing their jobs and enjoying their lives, you destroy that trusted relationship. And I think the same is true between the federal government and local communities. And we’re going to push back as hard as we can.

I took an oath to uphold and protect the constitution of Colorado. And part of that is making sure that that we are putting public safety foremost in pretty much everything we do. It’s one the most important things that government has a responsibility for. We’re not going to get sucked into something that actually makes us less safe just for the benefit of political imaging.


VICE News: So what is your biggest concern under a Trump administration? What is your fear?

HICKENLOOPER: That’s not fair, because I have many fears and I think they should remain private.

We’ve got plenty of fears and we are looking at our legal options […] at how we interact with the federal government on many of these issues, but I really want to feed our dreams. And I had this hope that we can find some compromises around the Affordable Care Act, around immigration. I mean why isn’t this the chance for Congress to finally get off their seats and and and solve the immigration issue?

VICE News: You did say you have some concerns about the Trump administrations and fears, but you also told a Denver reporter that your job is to make him a successful president. What did you mean by that? Why?

HICKENLOOPER: Well we’re Americans first., right? Part of my oath is also to uphold the Constitution of the United States. And if this notion that right off the bat, before he’s done anything — my sense is, you have to give him the benefit of the doubt, and and look at those places where you can help him improve the economy, help him make our communities safer.

I also said in that interview that you’ve also got to be very clear. You’ve got to draw a line in the sand on your core values and where you’re not going to go. And certainly his executive order around refugees, around immigration — I mean he crossed the line that we had been quite open about saying, ‘Hey, we’re not going to go there.’ So that doesn’t, he certainly in those first few weeks made it very difficult for someone like myself to go out and publicly say, ‘Hey I’m you know I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.’


VICE News: But you still are. You mentioned you would like to give him the benefit of the doubt despite the fact he didn’t call on any Democratic governors at the White House. So what is that line for you?

HICKENLOOPER: Well look, it depends on each issue. Call me a Pollyanna, but I don’t think [Trump] was aware that wasn’t calling on Democrats. I don’t think he was explicitly doing that.

I give him the benefit of doubt. Am I right or wrong, I don’t know. But once we point that out to the White House and that they are aware of it, if it happens a second time then I’ll know.

VICE News: Marijuana legalization in Colorado seems to have been successful so far. But you said this week on NBC that you’re coming around to it but not quite there yet. You’re almost there in terms of support. What’s the holdout?

HICKENLOOPER: Because [we made] a lot of mistakes. When I flew out to California and testified for their assembly, we had to go out and say, here’s what we did — you shouldn’t do these things. Clamp down on edibles right away. Don’t allow a home-growing system for caregivers to provide medical marijuana that allows people to have 99 plants.

We haven’t completely gotten rid of the black market yet. We worry about some of these caregivers drawing huge amounts of marijuana and then selling it in the gray market, and then selling that into a black market. But I want a couple more years of information. Of data.


We’re talking about people’s lives. Every brain scientist I’ve talked to believes that this high THC marijuana [is] six times stronger than the marijuana that I smoked when I was in college — and inhaled. And when you’re a teenager and your brain is growing so rapidly, they say the probability is very, very high that you’ll lose a sliver of your long-term memory permanently if smoking this high THC marijuana, even just smoking once or twice a week. My gosh — as you get older you realize your memory, it’s how you make decisions, it’s how — some of the great joys in your life are through remembering details of your life.

I want to make sure that this really is working.

VICE News: And the Trump administration looks like they’re going to step up enforcement of marijuana laws. You’ve said that you don’t think that there that that’s possible in Colorado.

HICKENLOOPER: I said that we will confront them.

They have federal law on their side so there are certain places where they can impose their will. But again, they cannot compel us to violate our own constitution. We’re not going to have the state patrol suddenly go out and make a priority of trying to arrest people for what is, in our constitution, legal. The federal government has a constitutional sovereignty, but all 50 states have constitutions and that that is also a level of sovereignty.

We’re going to argue with the attorney general that, you know he’s worried about violence around marijuana. I saw it was reported this morning. There’s a heck of a lot more violence around illegal marijuana than there is around legal marijuana. We know that for a fact. Many parts of the country have seen an increase in homicides not because of gang activity but because of domestic violence. I don’t want to make light of it but, if someone’s smoking pot, you rarely — and I’ve talked to police officers about this — how often you see guys who are high involved in physical domestic violence? Pretty unusual, right? Almost always with alcohol, right?

So we’ve got to begin taking — if you really want to worry about violence — marijuana, increased marijuana use among adults might — you might begin to see data that that will reduce violence and domestic issues.

So again, I would like to convince the Trump Administration that — if states really are the laboratories of Democracy, which I think they are, let’s let this experiment go a couple more years.