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Here's what Colorado's governor has to tell other states about legalizing marijuana

Four years ago, in the hours after Colorado became one of the first states to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, Gov. John Hickenlooper sounded a cautionary, if humorous, note: “Don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly.”

State voters overwhelmingly approved the measure, and Hickenlooper found himself wrestling with how to implement a law he had opposed.

Now, with other states passing similar measures, the Democrat has settled into an unexpected role — a kind of marijuana counselor to his peers. Governors call him up, he said, to ask for advice on pot.

“You don’t get to choose what your legacy is,” he said. 

In the weeks before Californians voted to legalize recreational cannabis last month, Gov. Jerry Brown called Hickenlooper for consultation. Like Hickenlooper, Brown did not endorse the effort.

Hickenlooper, who owned a brewery in downtown Denver before entering politics in 2003, said he usually gives the same, specific advice: Focus on marijuana-infused brownies, gummy candies and lollipops.

It’s counsel he’s doled out to governors from states such as Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada, which joined California this year in legalizing pot.

“We didn’t regulate edibles strongly enough at first,” Hickenlooper said in an interview this week at a gathering in Coronado of the Western Governors’ Assn.  He cited a spike in emergency room visits by kids who had eaten marijuana products and two cases in which young adults who had reportedly consumed marijuana edibles died — one after shooting himself and the other after jumping off a hotel balcony.

In recent years, with Hickenlooper at the helm, the state launched an extensive ad campaign about the dangers marijuana poses to kids and teenagers, and lawmakers have passed measures requiring that labels of edibles be stamped to show they contain pot. Still, the risks for children are high, according to a July report published by physicians at Children’s Hospital Colorado that showed an increase in emergency room visits for kids under 9 who ingested pot after recreational shops opened.

“Ingestion of edible products continues to be a major source of marijuana exposures in children and poses a unique problem because no other drug is infused into a palatable and appetizing form,” wrote Dr. Sam Wang, a physician at Children’s Hospital Colorado and the lead author of the report.

Sam Kamin, a professor of marijuana law and policy at the University of Denver, worked on a task force commissioned by Hickenlooper in 2013 to implement the legalization of marijuana.

“You look at what he was handed and he’s really embraced it,” Kamin said of the governor. “This has really been cutting-edge and everyone is learning on the fly.”

And that learning is still happening.

Last year, Colorado pot retailers raked in $996 million in sales and turned over more than $135 million in taxes and fees to the state, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.

Retail sales of marijuana in the state are taxed at 10%, while the regular sales tax is 2.9%. And that’s an area, Hickenlooper said, that could still use some tweaking. 

“One of our goals is to get the taxing level right,” he said, noting that if retail taxes are too high, black market sales will continue. “This will help our goal, which is to drive drug dealers out of the marijuana business completely.” 

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has regularly consulted his neighbor to the east about marijuana legalization. But, unlike liberal Colorado, Herbert’s more conservative state is now focused on the merits of medicinal marijuana. The state has considered allowing medicinal marijuana through ballot measures and the Legislature, but both efforts faltered.

Herbert said at a news conference that although governors must work to implement the will of the voters, “we need to have some leadership out of Washington, D.C., that puts us on a solid footing.”

Hickenlooper agrees.

“We’d love to make it easier to do banking,” he said, referring to the quandary that marijuana dispensaries face on a daily basis. Federal law prohibits banks from taking money from dispensaries selling pot, leading to an all-cash business and persistent fears among employees of violent crime.

Under federal law, marijuana is still viewed as a Schedule I drug — the same classification as heroin. The Obama administration hasn’t endorsed legalization, but as several states have gone down that path, it’s mostly taken a hands-off approach.

Hickenlooper has called on Congress to pass legislation that halts federal regulators from penalizing financial institutions for serving the marijuana industry — a move that would benefit legal weed businesses in the eight states where it’s now allowed for recreational use and the more than two dozen more where it’s allowed for medicinal purposes. 

“I’d love to have an allowance to have state-chartered banks be able to not risk their charter when they bank marijuana,” Hickenlooper said. 

The banking conundrum is one of many now faced by Californians as the state works to implement legal marijuana sales.

“There’s lots of conflicts,” Brown told reporters at the meeting here, adding, “I think over time things converge to the mean and things will look a lot smoother down the road.”

While Hickenlooper has called on reforms and help from Washington, everyone does not believe the governor has done well when it comes to legal marijuana. 

Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Denver-based Marijuana Policy Project, a group dedicated to ending cannabis prohibition nationwide, said Hickenlooper’s administration successfully implemented an effective new law, “but he tends to sell it short when discussing it publicly.”

“As a former brewpub owner, the governor surely appreciates the benefits of replacing prohibition with regulation. Yet he holds marijuana to a much higher standard than alcohol, despite it being far less harmful to the consumer and to society,” Tvert said. 

The topic of marijuana follows Hickenlooper everywhere.

At the governors meeting, between panel discussions on healthcare and the relationship between federal and state governments, he fielded an array of questions from reporters about pot and what other states can learn from Colorado’s experience.

(Of the governors in attendance, only Brown and Hickenlooper represented states where voters have approved measures legalizing marijuana for recreational use.)

Asked if he regretted his opposition to legal pot, Hickenlooper paused before responding.

“Four years ago, if I could have had a magic wand and waved it twice and reversed that vote, I would have. Now, if I have that magic wand, I probably wouldn’t — I would wait and see if we can make a better system,” he said.

“The old system, the War on Drugs, was a train wreck,” he added. “It didn’t work, so it remains to be seen whether the new system is actually going to be better.”

kurtis.lee@latimes.com

Twitter: @kurtisalee

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An earlier version of this article made it appear as though consuming edible marijuana caused the deaths of a few children.
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