DENVER, Col. — John Hickenlooper is an unlikely fit for the United States Senate. But then he was an unlikely two-term Denver mayor before he became an unlikely governor of Colorado twice, which is why it was no surprise to many locals when he was barely noticed as a Democratic presidential candidate last year. But in true Hickenlooper fashion, he turned getting laughed at on the national stage into a winning Senate campaign against now-outgoing Republican Sen. Cory Gardner.
Hick, as he is known in Colorado, is a tall, affable fellow who, after pursuing a career in geology, founded and still owns an immensely successful brewpub, the Wynkoop Brewing Co. As governor, Hickenlooper presided over the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, even though he openly opposed Amendment 64 — the initiative that legalized adult-use in Colorado — when voters overwhelmingly passed it in 2012. Like Gardner, Hick ‘saw the light’ since his prohibitionist days and now says he supports federal legalization.
“While Hick is known as a friend of beer, he still has to prove himself as a friend of cannabis”Leland Rucker
Even with his initial reticence to embrace what his voters went over his head to demand of their state government, advocates are holding out some hope, because they know he can bring new energy to federal legalization efforts, though his past makes them wary he’ll be their new champion on Capitol Hill.
“He’s got a reputation as a kind of goofy, likeable guy who owns a brewpub,” Christian Sederberg of the Vicente Sederberg law firm, which helped write Amendment 64 and has worked with Hickenlooper over the years, told The News Station. “But he was anti-cannabis when the campaigns began in Colorado and elsewhere.”
Gardner was arguably the biggest Republican promoter of cannabis in Washington, which is on advocates minds as he’s replaced by an older, more subdued, and less hip (if that’s even possible) senator-elect.
“Hickenlooper was mayor of the city I lived in, governor of the state I lived in, and now he’ll be the senator,” Adam Orens, co-founder and managing director of the Marijuana Policy Group, told The News Station. “I think that while he wasn’t the biggest friend to legal marijuana, he generally was a good governor and mayor. I didn’t have many complaints.”
Hick showed his small-d democratic leanings when he slowly came around to cannabis. A natural evolution for any politician – see Gardner as Exhibit A – but an evolution nonetheless. He visited the opening of Simply Pure, the first Black-owned cannabis business in Colorado.
“As a human being I have much love and admiration for him,” co-owner Wanda James told The News Station. “He’s extremely likeable, and his policies are mostly democratic.”
Hickenlooper’s marijuana ‘transformation’ occurred as he was climbing the political ladder. It also happened at the same time that many of the preconceived notions, fears, and tropes his 60-year-old self internalized — especially those still used by many Republicans about access to children and negative public health outcomes — were never realized. The smooth rollout of one of the first in the nation experiments with cannabis — which is still listed as a Schedule 1 narcotic by the Feds — was in no small part thanks to the now 68-year-old senator-elect.
“He saw what a regulated industry can do, and he’s been a good partner to make this industry succeed,” Sederberg says “He’s evolved, because he’s seen it work.”
“People will become so jaded and disillusioned they won’t support anything”Hickenlooper on negative ads in 2014
Hick — or ‘John W. Hickenlooper,’ as he’s known in dry legal documents — was born in Narberth, Penn. in 1952. He got his bachelor’s degree in English and master’s in geology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. He then worked in the petroleum industry in the 1980s before starting the Wynkoop Brewing Co. in 1988. He was able to ditch the fossil fuel gig — and the carbon they emit — once a new law passed that sparked today’s craft beer revolution. His became the first one in the state. It was built in an old warehouse in a then run-down area near downtown Denver. It’s now just blocks from Coors Field, where baseball teams toil a mile above sea-level, and is just a short walk from the city’s transit system, which is located in the old railway station.
In 2003, Hickenlooper hung up the wet mop and launched his first run for mayor. He played bluegrass music and ran quirky, humorous ads during his campaign. It worked, and he was elected. In that role he was popular, almost untouchable. He marshaled support for a huge public transit plan that was passed by voters, and includes the hub for the rail service that rolls near the brewpub to this day. He also became a champion for homeless issues, a pursuit which he continued as governor but which is still a problem in Colorado.
In 2012, he set his eyes just down the street from his mayor’s office in the state’s capital and launched his gubernatorial bid. He made a name for himself by decrying negative political ads, telling The Washington Post in 2014 that “people will become so jaded and disillusioned they won’t support anything and we will begin to slip behind.”
His geology background never came up as mayor, but it became an issue as governor. His support for fracking — which involves injecting liquid at high pressure into underground rocks to extract oil or gas — earned the ire of many who decried loose regulations that favored the oil and gas industry over counties, cities, and individuals. No matter which side of the divide you’re on, there’s no question it became a major economic draw to the now booming state.
He gave a reprieve to a convicted murderer, which sparked a heated debate over the death penalty around the state. After a vicious mass shooting in an Aurora theater, he made national headlines after signing gun-control measures, and he began to earn a reputation for reaching across the aisle.
Meet Gov. Hickenlooper
To say Hickenlooper was initially merely opposed to marijuana legalization would make locals wryly laugh in your face. He lambasted cannabis as a “gateway drug” that would lead to harder substances and destructive behavior. Much like cannabis opponents these days, he raised unfounded concerns in the press about potential health and safety issues.
“Colorado is known for many great things, marijuana should not be one of them,” Hick famously said in 2012. “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. It sends the wrong message to kids that drugs are OK.”
Not many Americans were supportive of marijuana at that time, though a growing number of states — including Colorado, California and Arizona — were passing initiatives allowing medical cannabis.
“We made a calculated, strategic decision to make him a foil”Mason Tvert
Mason Tvert moved to Colorado in 2005, on assignment with the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). He helped started the pro-decriminalization group Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER) on the campuses of the University of Colorado and Colorado State to draw attention to the issue. Both schools had suffered student deaths due to alcohol, and instead of pushing its medicinal properties, they began pushing cannabis as a safer alternative to alcohol. Nobody overdoses on cannabis, they pointed out over and over.
That was the year advocates were pushing that perpetually invisible envelope. MPP and other pro-cannabis groups were trying to rally support behind a provocative, at the time, measure to decriminalize the possession of less than an ounce of cannabis in Denver. Improbably, it passed, with 54 percent of voters approving eliminating all penalties for cannabis use.
True to form, Hickenlooper opposed the effort at the ballot box, but he didn’t stop there. He directed Denver law enforcement to supersede local statutes and his own citizen’s wishes and use federal law to go after his own constituents.
With the mayor playing hardball, MPP met him on his own level and, let’s say, a bar fight ensued. They crafted a campaign to couple Hickenlooper’s brewpub ownership with his marijuana opposition as weapons against the mayor in the naive, vindictive, and ultimately losing battle he had launched against his own voters. The strategy continued after he became governor.
“We made a calculated, strategic decision to make him a foil to help generate media coverage that cannabis is safer than alcohol,” Tvert told The News Station. “We’re trying to generate media coverage, and the mayor who owns a brewpub came out against it, saying cannabis was just too dangerous. It was the perfect opportunity for us to show the hypocrisy.”
Tvert and his allies hounded Hickenlooper relentlessly. He threw a “kegger” outside the governor’s mansion after the governor’s son was caught at a drinking party. Billboard ads went up with photos of women’s faces that connected them to alcohol and domestic violence. They bought an advertisement at a Nascar race promoting cannabis over alcohol.
Tvert famously challenged Hickenlooper and beer magnate Pete Coors — yeah, that Coors — to a contest where Tvert would smoke pot while they drank beer to see who would last the longest. Neither Hick nor Coors showed.
A friend of Tvert’s dressed in a chicken outfit, called “chickenlooper,” and Tvert followed the governor around, asking him to debate the merits of cannabis and alcohol. Tvert borrowed a style from the governor’s heavy-handed approach: He labeled Hickenlooper a ‘drug dealer.’ Not exactly what any politician wants to hear.
Change of Politics or of Heart?
The drug dealer, I mean, the mayor running for governor, governor continued opposing cannabis legislation during the 2012 campaign, but voters resoundingly told him where to shove his hypocrisy.
Amendment 64 enshrined recreational marijuana in the state Constitution. While its passage fittingly made cannabis on par with buying a six-pack of beer, it also demanded elected leaders, like Hick, set up a similarly strict, safe, and sane regulatory system that governs the alcohol industry. A Hickenlooper-sized hitch was thrown into the mix though: Amendment 64 laid out strict deadlines for building out that regulatory system in order to get dispensaries open by 2014.
The writing was on the wall, but Hick needed to see an eye doctor. Again, in the face of his constituent’s obvious desires, Hickenlooper cautioned not to “break out the Cheetos and Goldfish” when the initiative passed.
“That was the first of his ‘munchies’ jokes,” Tvert says, “which indicated that they weren’t taking this seriously.”
Hickenlooper appointed a commission to build the regulatory framework that included people from every side of the issue, including anti-cannabis allies. Still elected officials, almost all of whom had been opposed to Amendment 64, had to figure out how to meet the unforgiving deadlines imposed by the act.
Even as voters and advocates had won the war, Hick continued waging his anti-marijuana war. In early 2014, as stores were opening around the state, the governor’s office hired a high-profile advertising company for a campaign warning teenagers against cannabis use.
The campaign backfired spectacularly. It warned teens not to become “lab rats,” and to make the point they set up “cages” — which looked more like prison cells — in public areas around the state. After a column mocking the governor’s last ditch effort to override the will of his people by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd went viral, Hick and the state legislature reconsidered and passed revised edibles requirements and child-safety laws the next legislative session.
“When Hick sees the light, it seems to always be an eclipse”Leland Rucker
Maybe the bitter taste of defeat — there’s only so many Chickenlooper feathers one politician can safely digest — was just what the governor needed to finally see all the lighters safely sparking joints statewide. Because, albeit slowly, Hick’s attitude began moderating. In 2016, he told The Los Angeles Times and “60 Minutes” that “it’s beginning to look like it might work.”
Still, Hick continued to govern hesitantly on cannabis. While he signed a bill adding post-traumatic stress disorder to the medical marijuana program in 2014, he vetoed one that would have allowed autism. And he refused to sign legislation to allow cannabis consumption rooms (every bill he vetoed was passed and signed by current Democratic Gov. Jared Polis). When Hick sees the light, it seems to always be an eclipse.
“When he left as governor, he vetoed several bills, which seemed punitive, and I thought ‘wow, that was a little shocking,’” Orens says.
But onlookers like Orens didn’t know the true aspirations that were welling up in this soft spoken, yet calculating, politician. They also didn’t know he still carried an old, broken calculator.
“Now I understand why he did that. It was misguided, but he was going to launch a centrist presidential campaign,” Orens says.
Around that time, PEW found two-thirds of Americans — of all stripes — favored marijuana legalization, yet Hick stuck to his 1950s upbringing and the war on ‘drugs’ political era he was groomed on. So as large swaths of middle America were telling pollsters they like marijuana more than they like politicians, the governor decided to stand with Richard Nixon and the political class he internalized in his formative years.
Hickenlooper isn’t alone there.
“At the time people were talking about a ticket with him and [former Ohio Republican Gov.] John Kasich. He never had a chance at the presidency, but he’s a centrist Democrat. Our new president is a centrist,” Orens says of Joe Biden. “He’s a pretty pro-business Democrat who has been on the side of state control.”
Hickenlooper was all but laughed off the national presidential stage — if he could get any time to speak at all. But he read those polls correctly, and he quietly exited before primary voters could let him know just how much they didn’t want him on that crowded stage.
That’s when many state and national Democrats began urging him to challenge Gardner. But once in the Democratic Senate primary, he faltered and flailed.
True to his previously un-democratic governing philosophy, he refused a subpoena from the nonpartisan Colorado Ethics Commission, was slapped with contempt, and eventually changed his tune (looks like contempt is a more effective way to elicit change from a politician than labeling them a ‘drug dealer’). He was then found guilty of being unethical by the panel for taking what amounted to gifts, like travel on private jets or rides in limos.
After getting slapped with a mere $2,750 fine, Hick saw the light, again. But Chickenlooper claimed he just never got around to studying Colorado’s ethics laws — the state he served as governor of for two terms — and claims he was never formally briefed on them.
“As Governor, our administration set a course to make Colorado the gold standard of marijuana legalization”Hickenlooper’s campaign website
Hick got over those scandals and captured one of the most coveted GOP seats on the map in 2020. He did it, in part, by convincing voters he was over the past war on marijuana he launched against his own, locally law-abiding citizens. Today he takes credit for the success of the state’s marijuana legalization regime, which is studied by states now setting up their own cannabis regulations.
“As Governor, our administration set a course to make Colorado the gold standard of marijuana legalization,” he says on his website. “Marijuana sales have helped to fund educational opportunities for kids, helped us to repair rural schools across Colorado, and created entrepreneurship opportunities where there used to be black markets.”
That’s a long road from his earlier opposition. He also states that as senator, he will fight to remove cannabis from its current classification as a Schedule I drug, which at the very least would allow researchers to begin studying and researching marijuana at the scale Americans — Coloradans especially — now consume cannabis. .
In Washington, Hick is charged by voters to replace Gardner, who while vocal on marijuana decriminalization was never able to advance the STATES Act, which he co-sponsored with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Gardner told reporters and voters alike that President Trump privately told him he’d sign that bill to protect locally legal state cannabis firms by decriminalizing it nationally. But Trump never did, in part due to Gardner and his Senate Republican colleagues never allowing it to even come up for a vote in their chamber.
While Gardner huffed and puffed, many advocates are still wondering who is going to blow the house down. While Hick is known as a friend of beer, he still has to prove himself as a friend of cannabis.
“I think Hickenlooper takes literally the exact same positions as Gardner, but it’s not the same because he’s not a member of the majority party,” Tvert explains of the GOP control of the Senate. “Gardner was supportive of reforms, but he was in a position where that carried more influence and the sway he had over colleagues and procedural things.”
Tvert notes that the latest election results around the country—where five of five marijuana ballot measures overwhelmingly passed in conservative and liberal states alike—show a growing consensus that the federal prohibition is a quaint notion from a distant part of America’s recent history. And with more than half the states having recently legalized one form of marijuana or another, advocates and an increasing number of politicians now say positions like Hick once advocated for will be removed from the federal books sooner than later.
“We must keep reminding him of his privileged place. White progressives owe Black America a huge debt”Wanda James
Voters are powerful creatures,though. In Colorado alone they’ve flipped the anti-cannabis positions of three US senators—Gardner, current Democrat Michael Bennett and soon-to-be Sen. Hickenlooper— and that’s significant.
“When people ask what impact do they have more broadly? Those are pretty good examples,” Tvert of MPP tells The News Station.
Tvert stresses voters should pay attention to what Hickenlooper is saying now rather than dwelling on what Hick said in the past.
“The hope is that he will be supportive of federal policy reform,” Tvert says. “He has indicated as much.”
Over at Simply Pure — that first Black-owned canni-business in Colorado — Wanda James remains skeptical. She cautions that social equity must be included in any future cannabis proposals, and she’s not sure Hick gets that yet.
“His candidacy knocked out more progressive people and showed his white privilege,” she says. “If he’s supporting big business over doing right for all Americans now, I’m not ready to accept it. We must keep reminding him of his privileged place. White progressives owe Black America a huge debt.”
Sederberg, the advocate who once opposed him but who recently held a fundraiser for Hickenlooper, is hopeful that he will become a serious voice for cannabis reform on a national level. Even so, Washington is a place where voter’s hopes and dreams come to die, so Sederberg — and millions of others — are now constrained to merely waiting and watching to see whether Hick or Hickenlooper shows up in the nation’s capital.
“Whether it’s a priority, we’ll have to see,” he says. “It’s a big industry, and we need to move forward.”