DENVER — There’s a lot of giggling in Colorado, and about Colorado, these days. Except by the state’s leaders, who are like uneasy chaperones at a rowdy school dance.
“It’s insane,” says Sen. Michael Bennet.
“It’s no fun,” says Gov. John Hickenlooper, who admits he winces when he hears late-night pot shots, like Jimmy Fallon’s barb: “Stoners took a moment to thank Governor Hickenlooper, then they spent a few hours just saying the word ‘Hickenlooper.’”
Sitting in an office filled with panoramic depictions of the West and a New York license plate that belonged to family friend Kurt Vonnegut, the governor, 61, notes: “No matter how big a failure the war on drugs was, you don’t want to be the butt of late-night jokes.”
The lanky Jimmy Stewart look-alike, known as Hick, has warned Coloradans that they shouldn’t “break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly,” given that pot is still illegal under federal law. But unlike some other Colorado pols, the former microbrewery pub entrepreneur has been leery about being drawn into any joshing about Chronic Bud Bowl bets.
Both Bennet and Hickenlooper opposed the recreational pot referendum. (One marijuana advocate denounced Hickenlooper years before for balking, saying that a pub owner is a “drug dealer.”) The pair of Democrats, who ambled into politics late, seem as if they wandered out of a Frank Capra movie; they have the sort of innocent, zany charm that you rarely see in a profession that stamps out spontaneity.
But how will the role of pioneer scouts in a spacey odyssey, leaders in a state that suddenly has a more louche image, affect their promising national ambitions?
“Luckily, I don’t have serious national aspirations,” Hickenlooper says, “so that doesn’t really become much of an issue.”
He wouldn’t want to be Hillary’s vice presidential pick?
“She wouldn’t do it,” he replies, “because by that time I’ll be 64.” It has been rare to have a ticket with both people older than 60, he said, noting: “You have an older, wise person who’s a leader and then you have a young, spirited charismatic one.”
That doesn’t always work, I point out. Consider Sarah Palin and Dan Quayle.
But look at Barack Obama and Joe Biden, the governor replies.
“Great social experiments always have risk,” says Hickenlooper, who, amid floods, fires, droughts and shootings, finds the pot issue bogarting his time.
The state, subtly supported by the president and attorney general, must conjure up a regulatory system, sort out legal and banking complexities and quickly try to head off deleterious effects.
“It’s like opening a restaurant,” the governor says. “Just because you have three great weeks does not make it a successful restaurant.”
The infusion of young people into Colorado made the seismic shift inevitable, he said, because they thought banning pot was “absurd.” Yet the big trend of the premiere month is the parade of giggling grannies scarfing down pot-infused granola bars, candy and pastries.
Hickenlooper is bracing himself for the first traffic or workplace fatality traced to pot, which is far more potent now and sometimes spurs an acid-trippy effect, and he’s working on an anti-pot-smoking campaign directed at teenagers, who he says are at the most risk for long-term memory deterioration.
Although some Colorado pols think the tax revenue should be higher, Hickenlooper demurs that states shouldn’t be dependent on revenues from vices, like drugs or gambling or tobacco, “that inherently don’t make people happier or better.”
State Rep. Jared Wright, a Republican, warned on Fox News that it was only a “matter of time” before violence ensued and, spurred by a Web satire, sponsored legislation to stop people from using their food stamps on pot.
“Marijuana, generally, doesn’t make people confrontational or combative, unlike alcohol,” Hickenlooper objected.
Now that the rollout has been a success, the governor can once more think about his re-election race. He and writer Helen Thorpe had a friendly separation in 2012 and are raising their 11-year-old, Teddy, together. The governor’s strategists have warned him that he might need to be a monk.
“I really can’t date,” he says. “Political enemies would attack whoever the person was for whatever reason unless it was just exactly perfect.”
Looking dubious, he ventured: “I might meet someone that’s just perfectly, you know, uh, normal, appropriate in every way.”
But, he notes, it was hard enough the first time.
“I was 49 when I got married,” he said.
He broke off a couple of engagements and then went on the Phil Donahue show (with a girlfriend, oddly enough) and playfully offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who could help him find a wife.
Isn’t celibacy too much of a sacrifice to ask?
“I think it’s terrible,” Hickenlooper says with a grin. “But my campaign team is not so shy.”
The governor says that he smoked pot in his 20s to feel more comfortable in social settings but that he hasn’t done it “in decades.”
“It makes you slow down and clumsy,” he says. “I wouldn’t do it even if I was completely by myself in the forest or whatever.”