- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2014

DENVER — Colorado may be the first state with a retail marijuana market, but that doesn’t mean the next governor has to like it.

A week after Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper discouraged other governors from moving forward with legalized pot, top Republican gubernatorial candidates at Sunday’s debate said they have serious concerns about the drug spreading to teenagers, not to mention the hit to Colorado’s image.

“I’ll be honest, I’m tired of hearing all the jokes about the ‘Mile High City’ or ‘Rocky Mountain High,’” said Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who is seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

His comments came during a live GOP gubernatorial primary debate on KDVR-TV Sunday, shortly after Mr. Hickenlooper warned fellow attendees at the National Governors Association meeting to look before they leap into legalizing recreational pot.

“I don’t think governors should be [in] the position of promoting things that are inherently not good for people,” said Mr. Hickenlooper, who’s running for re-election.

It wasn’t the governor, but the voters who approved Amendment 64, which legalized small amounts of recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over. Washington voters passed a similar initiative in the same election cycle, and that state’s officials expect to launch its regulated retail market in June.

Only one of the top gubernatorial candidates in either party — former Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo — supported Amendment 64. Mr. Tancredo has declined to appear in Republican primary debates, saying they contribute to the party’s self-inflicted election-year wounds.

Colorado unveiled its marijuana market on Jan. 1, And while sales are booming, the gubernatorial candidates say they’re worried about the product filtering down to children and teenagers.

“I look at the kids up and down my block, and my own kids, and I don’t want our children to get access to it,” said former state Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, one of four candidates who took part in the debate. “It harms them. The science is settled: It harms them.”

Mr. Hickenlooper’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year projects $610 million in marijuana sales, about $200 million more than initial projections, generating about $98 million in excise and sales tax revenues for the state.

The first $40 million of that windfall by law must go toward public-school construction, and the governor has proposed using the rest for substance abuse and public-health programs focused on youth. That’s fine with businessman Steve House, another Republican vying for the party’s nomination.

“We already know from looking at several high schools across the state that there’s at least 30 percent more marijuana being confiscated out of high schools … We need to make sure the rest of the money at least early on to make sure our children are protected,” said Mr. House at the debate.

At the same time, none of the Republican candidates said they would push for a repeal, at least not yet.

“It’s not at the top of my agenda; however, we cannot bury our heads in the sand,” said Mr. Kopp. “If the impacts are greater than anybody expects in this new untrodden territory, then you have to put that issue before the voters to consider.”

Republican state Sen. Greg Brophy said he worried about his 12-year-old son’s experience growing up in a state with a legalized pot market for adults, but also criticized the regulations approved last year by the Democratic state legislature.

“We also promised we would regulate marijuana like alcohol, and we’re not doing that,” said Mr. Brophy. “We’ve created the most burdensome regulatory system ever seen by mankind here, and that’s why I didn’t support any of that.”

He also blamed the heavy media coverage for glamorizing recreational marijuana.

“I’m a little bit disgusted with the media because they’re glorifying marijuana right now in Colorado — leading the news all the time, a whole section of its own in the newspaper,” said Mr. Brophy. “And we have to combat that.”

As for the knock to the state’s reputation, that problem may solve itself as other states move toward legalization. The next state on the marijuana horizon is Alaska, where voters are slated to vote in August on an initiative legalizing recreational pot for adults.

“I do think it hurts our image,” said Mr. House. “I also think that if 17, 18 other states do it, which it looks like they will soon, it’ll go away.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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