- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2014

DENVER — He still thinks Colorado voters made a mistake when they legalized marijuana two years ago, but Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper is not above taking the pot industry’s campaign money as he faces a tough re-election battle next month.

And when Mr. Hickenlooper denounced the vote to legalize recreational pot smoking as “reckless” during a debate this week, there were more than a few double takes from those in the legalization movement here.

Not because Mr. Hickenlooper’s views on legalizing marijuana aren’t well known — the Democratic governor has long opposed it — but because the governor has been privately soliciting campaign funds from the marijuana industry even as he publicly condemns the November 2012 vote that ushered in the state’s recreational pot market.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, was quick to point out the discrepancy, saying that Mr. Hickenlooper was “hypocritical” and behaving like “a politician in full election mode.”

“I just think it’s craven,” Mr. St. Pierre told The Washington Times. “Considering what he had told us in private in this fundraising effort, I was definitely surprised to see him [revert] back to this notion that the citizens of Colorado have done something untoward or illogical. And now that blowback is certainly happening.”

Colorado’s marijuana advocates have long been involved in politics, but this year is different. With no legalization or taxation measure on the November ballot for the first time since 2011, the growing industry lobby has flexed its muscles in partisan contests, holding fundraisers and supporting candidates in state and federal races.

SEE ALSO: Colorado marijuana VIPs raise green stuff for Sen. Mark Udall

That rising profile has created a dilemma for Democrats, who have been the main beneficiaries of the marijuana industry’s largesse but aren’t necessarily eager to be closely associated with a product that roughly half of Colorado voters wish was still illegal.

A USA Today/Suffolk University poll released Sept. 18 found that only 46 percent of likely Colorado voters continue to support Amendment 64, the 2012 legalization initiative, while 50 percent oppose it. Just 42 percent of those surveyed approve of how the state is enacting the law. The measure passed with 55 percent of the vote.

That may explain why Democratic Sen. Mark Udall has remained tight-lipped on marijuana, even as he’s received $2,500 from the National Cannabis Industry Association PAC. His campaign helped organize a private fundraiser last month in Denver with industry bigwigs.

“Mr. Udall would be one of the few sitting senators who has met with and accepts funding from the so-called ‘marijuana industry,’” Mr. St. Pierre said. “From my pragmatic point of view, I would see him as an ally. However, unlike Mr. Hickenlooper, he has resisted making any real public comments about it and has been able to make it clear that he’s generally supportive, but he doesn’t get into specifics.”

Tom Angell, spokesman for Marijuana Majority, said he was disappointed that candidates haven’t been more outspoken this year in their support for legalized pot, pointing out that the issue could motivate younger voters who are less likely to show up in midterm elections.

“I think it’s a winning issue,” Mr. Angell said. “One thing I think makes it particularly attractive for savvy politicians is there aren’t many other savvy politicians who have caught on to this fact yet. So those who get out in front are going to draw the attention of a lot of young voters, a lot of stoners, and generate a lot of positive media coverage for themselves.”

SEE ALSO: Marijuana-infused soda pulled from stores after bottles explode

He noted that national polls show a majority of Americans now support decriminalizing recreational marijuana use for adults. Voters in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., will vote Nov. 4 on whether to join Colorado and Washington as the only states to legalize and regulate retail pot for adults 21 and over.

Pot and the gender gap

At the same time, polling also shows that marijuana legalization consistently lags with women, a must-win demographic for Democrats. Mr. Udall in particular is relying heavily this year on women voters given his double-digit deficit with men against Republican rival Rep. Cory Gardner in recent surveys.

Mr. Udall “cannot risk any women whatsoever,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “Not that I think this is a strategy to win men; it’s a strategy to make money.”

The issue is also touchy for GOP candidates, who may not be thrilled with recreational pot but haven’t raised the issue on the campaign trail other than to say that they respect the will of Colorado voters.

Speaking out against pot risks inflaming libertarian voters, while embracing it could alienate social conservatives. Still, a spokesman for Republican state Rep. Bob Beauprez, who’s running against Mr. Hickenlooper, couldn’t resist a jab at the governor after his “reckless” comment.

“To raise money from the industry [and] then throw them under the bus is classic ‘Hickpocrisy,’” said Beauprez spokesman Allen Fuller in a statement. “He can’t have his Cheetos and eat them too.”

After the 2012 vote, Mr. Hickenlooper memorably warned that “federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or goldfish too quickly.”

During Monday’s Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce debate, Mr. Hickenlooper said that moving forward with recreational marijuana “without having all the data to a certain extent you could say it was reckless.”

“I’m not saying it was reckless, because I’ll get quoted everywhere. But if it was up to me, I wouldn’t have done it, right? I opposed it from the very beginning,” Mr. Hickenlooper said, before adding, “What the hell, I’ll say it was reckless.”

Mr. St. Pierre said the governor took a considerably different tack in his private fundraising pitch to NORML, arguing that he had defended the state’s retail pot market with federal agencies and law enforcement.

“He came to drug policy reform groups, including NORML, asking for re-election money, and when we would say, ‘Well, hi, Mr. Cheetos reference guy,’ he said, ‘Oh, yeah, I didn’t read that correctly. I was frustrated, but mea culpa, look what I’ve done since then,’” Mr. St. Pierre said.

Mr. Hickenlooper’s campaign donations include $500 from the National Cannabis Industry Association, $250 from NORML board member Paul Kuhn, and $1,100 from prominent Denver marijuana attorney Christian Sederberg, according to state campaign finance records.

Tripp Keber, head of Denver-based Dixie Elixirs & Edibles, which makes pot-infused foods and drinks, told The Associated Press that he threw a fundraiser at the Four Seasons for Mr. Hickenlooper in August that netted $40,000.

“It was interesting to see how he’s starting to evolve. I said, ‘I’m telling you, I can get 100 people in the room who would be happy to max out,’” i.e., give the state’s maximum legal donation of $1,100, Mr. Keber said.

As far as Mr. St. Pierre is concerned, however, Mr. Hickenlooper still has some evolving to do.

“This is why most politicians hold such low esteem in American politics: Because they say one thing publicly, and they do another thing privately,” Mr. St. Pierre said. “It’s entirely the case here.”

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

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