Let the record show Peter Droege grew up in Central City well before the first legal casino opened its doors there — and fully a century after its original claim to fame as a wild and wooly mining camp in Colorado's gold rush days.
Perhaps it was dodging those bullets that enabled him to emerge into the conservative's conservative he is today in Colorado policy circles. And even if timing had nothing to do with it — everyone has to be born somewhere, after all — there's still this touch of irony: His boyhood home is now a casino.
Droege, who has worked on homelessness, immigration, education and disabilities among other issues, focuses a lot of his energy and passion these days on battling drug use and its impact on the community. The former VP at the Daniels Fund and previous executive director of Step Denver, a residential recovery program for men in addiction, currently serves as fellow of drug policy for the Centennial Institute in Lakewood.
In today's Q&A he lays out the high priority the institute places on alerting Colorado parents about the perils of drug use and addiction among young people, and he details his battle strategy in a state that has been a leader in marijuana legalization.
Colorado Politics: How did you become involved in conservative causes?
Peter Droege: It does not pay much, and few people want to do it, so it is always easy to find work. My work is guided by the belief that the common good is best served when social issues are resolved at the local level, not by big government. Conservatives believe that we have an obligation to personally help those in need. My role is to organize efforts that allow others to meet this obligation by volunteering or making donations. There is a proper role for government, but it is limited. Colorado has long been known for its quality of life but is increasingly known as a place where people can come to do drugs. The same policies that are causing people to flee California, New York and Illinois are being implemented in our state and we need to wake up before it is too late.
- Fellow of drug policy at the Centennial Institute, affiliated with Colorado Christian University in Lakewood.
- Chief vision officer, Digital Continent, 2016-present.
- Executive director, Step 13, 2014-2016.
- Vice president of communications, Daniels Fund, 2004-2014.
- Executive director, Solidarity Institute, 2000-2003. The institute promoted faith, life, family and education in Colorado.
- Editor, Denver Catholic Register, 1994-2000.
CP: What is your goal as fellow of drug policy at Centennial Institute? What are your top concerns about drug use among youth?
Droege: We focus on three areas — protecting youth from the harms of substance abuse; increasing access to addiction recovery programs, and educating the public on how drug abuse harms people and communities across our state. We also focus on national policy, and in 2019 assisted state and business leaders in Ohio around marijuana policy.
In August, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams issued a public health advisory stating that today’s high-potency marijuana harms the developing brain and may produce paranoia and psychosis in youth. The Journal of American Medicine recently issued a report that came to the same conclusion. Parents need to talk to their children and take immediate action where necessary to protect their children from the harms of today’s marijuana, which can be 10 times stronger than “Woodstock weed.”
We also raise awareness that companies that make vaping products are getting kids hooked on nicotine in the same way that Big Tobacco got young people hooked on cigarettes. We also pointed out the harms of vaping high-potency THC long before news reports emerged last summer about the health damage and even death caused by these products.
CP: What is your response when people say youth marijuana use has not increased in Colorado?
Droege: According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Colorado currently holds the top ranking for first-time marijuana use among youth, representing a 65% increase in the years since legalization. In Douglas County, youth busted for marijuana in high school has gone up 149% since legalization and they don’t even have recreational marijuana shops in the county. A Denver Health study reported that 70 percent of marijuana dispensaries recommend high-potency weed to pregnant women for morning sickness, which puts their baby at risk of low-birth weight and other health issues. We have a lot of work to do.
CP: What is the best public policy approach to substance abuse?
Droege: First, we have to reject misguided public policies that claim to focus on harm reduction, but instead trap people in the misery of addiction. Whether it is homeless camping, safe injection sites or decriminalizing all hard drugs, these policies being pushed in Colorado are the same ones that resulted in drug-and-crime-infested homeless camps on the streets of Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
CP: The Centennial Institute reported on the economic cost of marijuana in Colorado.
Droege: The study was released in 2018 and reported that every dollar in revenue produced from taxes on marijuana costs Colorado taxpayers $4.50. That number is based on state regulatory costs, law enforcement, emergency room visits, auto accidents, the growing number of suspensions in public schools, mental health services, addiction treatment programs and other costs. In addition, when marijuana was legalized, it was roughly $2,300/pound. Due to a growing supply, the drug now costs around $800/pound, so tax revenue is likely to go down.
CP: You've spent a lot of years advocating for school choice in Colorado.
Droege: Only 20 percent of students from low-income families attending public schools are proficient in reading and math. This is a tragedy and a disgrace. When these same students are enrolled in a faith-based school, their proficiency rates increase by as much as two to three times that of their peers. I believe this is the key issue we should be focusing on in Colorado. I have worked on a few policy efforts around this issue; helped start a charter school for dropouts, and am currently raising money for private scholarships that empower parents to choose the school that they know is best for their child.
CP: What was it like to grow up in Central City?
Droege: When I was a kid, people would visit Central City simply to marvel at how it looks very much the same as it did in the 1800s. Then and now, the Central City Opera is extraordinary. The town fell into disrepair in the 1980s and, with no public funds available, limited-stakes gaming was approved to help rebuild the infrastructure. I am working with local leaders in renovating the old Belvidere Theater to provide a venue for artists and community gatherings. Our goal is to expand the economic base of the city to include other industries.