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Colorado Gov. still isn't high on legalized marijuana

Lauren Lyster

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper did not support marijuana legalization before voters in his state gave it the stamp of approval at the polls in 2012. Four months into this "great social experiment" he tells us he still wouldn't have supported it despite tax revenues coming in higher than officials thought and a burgeoning new industry.

Related: Pot Pushback Goes Up in Smoke: $20 Billion Economy Awaits Marijuana Legalization

"You don't want to be the first at something like this," he tells us in the accompanying video interview, taped at the Milken Institute Global Conference Tuesday. "It's hard to create laws and regulations when no one has done it before," he says. "Plus, Colorado becomes the butt of a lot of jokes...It comes with the territory, but we want to make sure there are no adverse consequences. It's a great social experiment; we have an obligation to do it right."

Gov. Hickenlooper announced his opposition to Amendment 64 in September 2012. The Nov. 6 ballot measure sought to regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol, and went on to pass.

“Colorado is known for many great things –- marijuana should not be one of them," he said at the time in a statement. "Amendment 64 has the potential to increase the number of children using drugs and would detract from efforts to make Colorado the healthiest state in the nation." While Hickenlooper voiced sympathy towards the inequities of felony records for young people with “often minor marijuana transgressions,” he looked to state lawmakers and district attorneys to mitigate these issues.

Despite his opposition, the measure received diverse support from some high profile conservatives and even some religious figures.

Since passage, all eyes are on Colorado as a litmus test in the marijuana debate. It's the first state to begin selling recreational marijuana.

Related: Marijuana will be the single best investment idea of the next decade: Todd Harrison

Politicians and advocates are also eyeing the projected revenue the state will bring in from marijuana industry taxes and fees — $134 million for the fiscal year that begins in July, according to the governor's office, which is higher than originally expected.

But it's not all cannabis-friendly symphonies and fun new startups like airTHC rentals for pot tourists.

Related: A new frontier for Silicon Valley: The marijuana trade

Opponents warn that higher enforcement costs will offset the tax revenue gains.

As for how it's going so far, the governor says "it's too early to claim victory, but it's going well."

"I think the regulatory framework is working," he adds. "People are paying the tax -- tax revenues are higher than what we thought -- but what we're most worried about are the things we're not expecting."

Namely: The impact on children. Hickenlooper says polls show that the number of kids who think they're going to smoke pot in the next year is much higher than it used to be. "They think it's ok and safe," and yet neurologists are telling officials that while the brain is still maturing, it's likely that marijuana high in THC can permanently effect long-term memory.

So will enforcement costs be higher as a result of legal marijuana? Hickenlooper says, "Of course, and we'll use tax revenue for that." 

Hickenlooper says gains should be put towards enforcement such as making sure nobody is driving high and that kids aren't smoking. They are worried about high-risk kids using marijuana and being more susceptible to "slipping off the rails," and he cites the expense of geting them back on track.

It's hard for Hickenlooper to predict how much tax revenue marijuana will bring to the state. He says they don't have any data to guide them, as this has never been done before. "Even Amsterdam never taxed marijuana," he notes, saying the revenue could come in anywhere from $90 million to $160 million. In fact, there has been some indication that revenue is falling short of projections, based on early reads.

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