John Hickenlooper, a Democratic candidate for president, told reporters Wednesday that the federal government should let states decide whether to legalize marijuana, but called for aggressive steps to reform banking laws and change the drug's legal status so it's no longer treated as a dangerous narcotic.
"I don't think the federal government should come in and tell every state that it should be legalized," said the former Colorado governor, who launched his campaign for president Monday. "I trust this process by which states can be the laboratories of democracy."
He spoke at a press conference at Wynkoop Brewing Co., the brewpub he founded 31 years ago in Denver's Lower Downtown neighborhood.
Comparing the strategy he favors to liquor laws in some states that allow "dry" counties to ban the sale of alcohol, Hickenlooper added: "The approach is to make sure the federal laws are changed so that those states that have chosen to legalize marijuana can do so in an efficient and safe manner."
Hickenlooper, who oversaw the creation of the world's first legal recreational marijuana marketplace after Colorado voters legalized it in 2012, said the federal government "should reclassify marijuana so it's not a schedule 1 narcotic" and change banking laws to the industry doesn't have to operate almost entirely on a cash basis.
"If you wanted a recipe for how you get corruption and create a generation of gangsters, make sure a new industry is all cash," he said.
Hickenlooper's proposal differs from legislation introduced in Congress this week by fellow Democratic presidential candidates, including bill sponsor New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and co-sponsoring senators Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who is considering joining the crowded Democratic presidential primary field, has also signed on to Booker's Marijuana Justice Act, which would effectively legalize cannabis at the federal level.
The bill would remove marijuana from the list of federal controlled substances — it currently shares a classification with heroin, psilocybin and LSD — and expunge federal convictions for some pot-related crimes.
Ten states, including Colorado, and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana, and it's legal for medical use in 33 states and DC.
Noting that he opposed legalization before Coloradans approved it with a statewide ballot measure, Hickenlooper said that once it passed, he "committed to do everything possible to make it work."
"I'm not saying the system is perfect," he added, "but I will say the things that I feared six years ago have not come to pass."
Those fears, he said, included a spike in consumption by teenagers and widespread problems with intoxicated drivers.
"I look at the old system as a failure," Hickenlooper said. "And while we still have a black market — the present system is not perfect — I don't think we should go back to the old system."
Asked if he had any regrets about the legalization process in Colorado, Hickenlooper said he wished the state had moved faster to more effectively regulate edible marijuana products, in part to keep them out of the hands of youth.
Hickenlooper said he has "ignored the political benefits" that might accrue to a politician who helped usher into creation the first framework for legal pot.
"We didn't do that. We relentlessly stayed as what the Quakers would call a 'fair witness,' alright? To try to get the information objectively and let the facts speak for themselves."
Hickenlooper has scheduled a campaign kick-off rally and concert at 5 p.m. Thursday in Denver's Civic Center Park. Homegrown rockers Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats and soul singer SuCh are scheduled to perform.