Rat in a Cage: Legalized Weed Has Been Awkward for Colorado's Governor

During a recent hour-long interview on the subject of marijuana with Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper laid out the details of his upcoming PSA, an anti-pot campaign titled "Don't Be A Lab Rat."

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Jul 14 2014, 8:30pm

Colorado's governor had beers with President Obama at his brewpub in Denver last week. Just don't ask him about pot. Photo via Flickr user Thomas Cizauskas

During a recent hour-long interview on the subject of marijuana with Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper laid out the details of his upcoming PSA, an anti-pot campaign titled "Don't Be A Lab Rat."

"Kids are our highest concern," he said, exuding his characteristic wide-eyed, Peter Pan innocence. "[Marijuana] has been illegal for so long as a class one narcotic, so scientists couldn't get access to run tests on it... So we're spending millions of dollars on a campaign getting to parents, making sure they understand this is a whole different kettle of fish, but also to get to the kids. We're working on this campaign called 'Don't Be A Lab Rat.' We're looking to build these large, metal cages with a kind of hamster water-bottle inside, and then put them at bus stops or anywhere close to where kids intersect, telling them 'don't be a lab rat.'"

Obviously I'm not the first person to accuse a politician of being disingenuous, but I'm surprised more people aren't calling bullshit on the governor here. Why does he deem it necessary to spend millions trying to frighten children with a macabre, Billy Corgan-esque piece of imagery, as if adult marijuana use is some imminent threat to kids? (Diabetes, anyone?!) Those folks with a kernel of political moxie knows Hick's cries of "won't someone please think of the children!" are just a firewall of Sunday School science, one in a long line of desperate PR moves by a man whose political career has been threatened by the voters in his state deciding that marijuana is a relatively harmless alternative to alcohol. (The governor made his fortune as a brewpub owner, and is never shy about branding Colorado as a craft-beer mecca.)

Ultimately, it's Hickenlooper that is the proverbial rat in a cage, not Colorado's children. But it's not entirely his fault.

"It hasn't been an easy journey [legalizing marijuana], and these are some of the reasons why almost every elected official I know in Colorado opposed legalization," he told Couric woefully.

Despite controversial gun-control measures earning him calls of "fascist!" from the right, and an open-arms embracement of fracking inspiring criticism from the left, Hickenlooper has remained a popular governor. He's eloquent, but not an intellectual. He's mildly handsome, but not intimidatingly so. Hickenlooper speaks with a vulnerable frankness, at times employing a thoughtful stutter not unlike National Public Radio's Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

Hickenlooper's likability has made Republican opponents weary of using attack ads against him, and when the Aurora theater shootings landed him on NBC's Meet the Press in 2012, his commanding-yet-paternal tone won him a place in hearts of American elites, inspiring gossip of a 2016 presidential run, or perhaps a VP nod.

Yet even with the gratifying buzz, Hickenlooper found himself an actor without a script when it became clear that the majority of his state's citizens disagreed with him on the issue of marijuana legalization.

Guns, economics and even the environment have been cornerstone issues of debate in this country since our constitution was first drafted; they're a bumpy road to travel down, but at least there's a road. For politicians looking to gauge the temperature of their constituents, legalizing pot entirely seemed to come out of nowhere, like a rabid bull dropping from the sky into the middle of a Super Bowl game. It's more than just "the great social experiment of our time," as Hickenlooper referred to legalization in Aspen. It's also one of the great political challenges of this decade.

Illustration by Denver-based artist Vincent Comparetto

On a different episode of his show this past January, Meet the Press host David Gregory delivered a line I have heard ceaselessly from reporters reporting on marijuana legalization: "I don't really know that much about it." If a journalist were leading a panel discussion on any other subject—say, health care or the war in Afghanistan—and casually admitted they had done little or no research leading up to the interview, that would be the end of their career. But when reporting on pot, it's essential they appear out of touch and disconnected.

Katie Couric joined the ranks of these proudly uninformed journalists during the Hickenlooper chat in Aspen. It was actually surprising that she delivered the I-don't-know line only once during the hour-long segment. American reporters have had a difficult time covering marijuana legalization without cracking puns and giggling like ten-year-old girls who were just asked if they know what a penis is. Before she could finish asking a question about "vape-pens" Couric cracked herself up, laughing, "I sound like a druggie!"

"You seem to know a little too much about this," Hickenlooper teased her, knowing all too well the trapeze act of ignorance a public figure in this country must display when speaking about marijuana use.

It seems that the secrecy of the ballot box is the only refuge for people to feel comfortable admitting they smoke pot (or are at least okay with others smoking it). I've known journalists who've turned down lucrative jobs reporting on cannabis (while being smokers themselves) because they felt just writing about it would tarnish their reputation, undermining their credibility when it came to reporting on more serious issues like sports and rock bands. There's so much baggage with this subject that no one wants to even say the word without urgently declaring ignorance and disapproval—not unlike the way journalists treated the taboo subject of homosexuality in the 1950s and 60s.

During the Couric interview, Hickenlooper never once made a positive remark about marijuana, much less the people who use it. Any questions about the windfall of tax revenue produced by legal sales of the drug had to be diverted to a discussion about anti-drug campaigns. Any characterization of pot-smokers had to be negative—they are dumb, unhealthy, and potentially dangerous behind the wheel. When asked if he thought Colorado's legalization efforts were an overwhelming success, Hick replied, "The wordoverwhelming success is not something I'm going to apply to this because, you talk about branding, that's the wrong... it could've been a lot worse." 

At the same time, the governor was forced to admit that the doomsday warnings he'd offered in the run-up to the 2012 ballot referendum on legalization have not been borne out. There have been no surges in impaired driving, nor reports of major trafficking of pot outside the state. And after a round of attempted under-age sale sting operations on dispensaries by Colorado's Marijuana Enforcement Division, not a single one was caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

The lab rat of John Hickenlooper has been navigating quite the maze over the last six months, concerned not only for the reputation of his state, but, naturally, himself. Leading up to Washington state rolling out its own recreational marijuana sale regime last Tuesday, Hick might have taken solace in the prospect of Seattle siphoning off some of the media scrutiny that Denver has weathered over the last six months. But after it was revealed that the soggy capital of the Northwest could manage to open only one store (which has already run out of bud), it's looking less and less likely that the governor will be let off the hook any time soon. In recent days, Hickenlooper has begun to walk back his most aggressive fearmongering about the law, but this a balancing act he'll be finessing for years to come.

Despite all his rage, he is still just a rat in a cage.

Josiah Hesse is a journalist from Denver, Colorado, covering the local music, comedy, marijuana, and political landscapes. Follow him on Twitter.

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