ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a change in marijuana policy today. Under President Obama, federal authorities generally did not interfere with states where marijuana was legal. Now that policy will no longer apply. Recreational marijuana has been legal in Colorado since 2014. Democrat John Hickenlooper is that state's governor, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.
JOHN HICKENLOOPER: Glad to be on.
SHAPIRO: How will this change affect your state?
HICKENLOOPER: Well, it's hard to see right now. I expect that it's going to end up being more bark than bite. I mean, if you look at it 30 states now - I mean, more than two-thirds of the American public - 30 states have legalized marijuana in some form. It's hard to imagine - if states really are the laboratory of democracy, which I think they are, we're conducting one of the great, you know, social experiments in recent history. And it's beginning to work. I still urge other governors to go slowly and let's see what the unintended consequences are. But it's the wrong time to pull the rug out from under the entire, you know, national effort.
SHAPIRO: Well, just to get specific, how much tax revenue does the state of Colorado get now from legal marijuana sales?
HICKENLOOPER: Oh, we got a little over $200 million last year. But keep in mind, we've got a $30 billion budget. And so that $200 million dollars, a bunch of it - probably a third - is in terms of regulations and trying to do enforcements. We spend tens of millions of dollars making sure that minors don't - you know, teenagers, kids, don't get access to marijuana. So it's not about the money. And I don't think states should be in a position where they're making these decisions as a source of revenue.
SHAPIRO: Governor Hickenlooper also says states will have to weigh public health and safety concerns. And Hickenlooper says that's why the U.S. attorney in Colorado today said his office won't change its approach to marijuana cases.
HICKENLOOPER: Well, I think the U.S. attorney is looking at the guidelines. And I think almost all the U.S. attorneys in the different states are working on whereby they have limited resources and they are trying to prioritize serious - I mean, heroin, you know, rampant opioid abuse, those kinds of things are much higher priorities to them than worrying about medical marijuana or recreational marijuana. So they've got their priorities. And I don't think their priorities have changed. Again, when I met with the Attorney General Sessions, one of the things he was explicit about was he thought more people doing more drugs of any kind - and he included marijuana - did not make this country stronger.
SHAPIRO: And so...
HICKENLOOPER: And I don't disagree with him. I just think that the old system was - you know, was - in many ways made things worse.
SHAPIRO: It sounds like your advice to marijuana dispensaries and users in Colorado is, don't worry about this. You won't be put in prison. Is that advice that they can take to heart?
HICKENLOOPER: I'm not sure I would say that advice because when the attorney general of the United States directs the Department of Justice to make a decision like this, I wouldn't get overconfident.
SHAPIRO: So what is your advice to them while you say it's more bark than bite?
HICKENLOOPER: My advice is - would be to make sure you comply with every regulation that we have, every I is dotted, every T is crossed...
SHAPIRO: That the state has.
HICKENLOOPER: ...And really focus on doing this national experiment, increasingly a national experiment, the right way.
SHAPIRO: If your prediction that this will be more bark than bite turns out to be wrong and there is a serious crackdown, is there anything that your state can do to push back?
HICKENLOOPER: There are some things we can do to push back. But in the end, federal law, their powers extend beyond the states' powers. But they have - I mean, again, to go against the vote, the will of two-thirds of the American people, I don't see how that's beneficial to the Trump administration or to the attorney general. I think what the attorney general was saying is that he thinks this is a really bad idea and that he wishes he could do something about it. I don't think he's got the resources. And it's not a high enough priority that he's really going to go out and try and tip over the apple cart. But he's expressing his strong feeling that this does not make America a stronger place.
SHAPIRO: Rather than push back on the attorney general's enforcement priorities, he is enforcing the law as written. Would you be better off pushing to change the law?
HICKENLOOPER: Yeah. I think we are at that point. I think Congress should step back and say, all right, let's put some national guardrails on this and make sure that on a national level, you know, we're coordinating our efforts to make sure we're eliminating the black market and protecting teenagers and, you know, making sure that edibles are in tamper-proof, non-accessible for kids containers.
SHAPIRO: John Hickenlooper is the governor of Colorado, and he's a Democrat. Thank you for joining us today.
HICKENLOOPER: You bet. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.