What changes should Boston expect from legal recreational marijuana? Just ask Denver.

"You should expect that there will be challenges."

Mayor Michael Hancock at an event in Denver in 2016.
Mayor Michael Hancock at an event in Denver in 2016. –Evan Semón / Denver Mayor's Office

There’s less than a month to go until recreational marijuana sales become legal in Massachusetts. More than 18 months since the state voted to legalize weed, residents and officials are approaching the long-awaited July 1 date that licensed shops can begin opening with varying levels of apprehension, excitement, and uncertainty.

Fortunately, it isn’t completely uncharted territory.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock initially opposed Colorado’s 2012 voter referendum to legalize recreational marijuana. But after the measure passed, he came to grips with the fact that he’d have to lead his city through the transition. Now, he’s leading a group of mayors who are asking the federal government to loosen its restrictive approach to the drug, too.

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“Those of us who did not support the proposition at the ballot were like, ‘The sky is going to fall. We’re going to have kids using marijuana. We’re going to have crime all over our cities,'” Hancock said.

In reality, those fears were mostly overblown. But there were certain challenges the city and state had to face, from pesticides to edibles.

“These are very complex, very difficult issues,” said the 49-year-old Democratic mayor.

Hancock was in Boston this week for the U.S. Conference of Mayors and spoke Monday with Boston.com about his involvement with the rollout of legal cannabis in Colorado, his reflections on the process, and what local residents should expect as industry begins to bloom in Massachusetts.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Just to get to it, what’s it been like as the mayor of Denver over the past six years as Colorado has rolled out this new industry?

It’s been an interesting journey, quite frankly, but a good one. One of the things that is lost on the general population is that we were the first in the world to implement a legalized framework for marijuana.

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So it’s been a very educational journey — but one in which I can also tell you that I’ve been really proud how the government and the industry and the people of Denver collaborated to implement a responsible framework and move forward with enforcement and regulation, not knowing what we didn’t know.

What were the biggest changes that you saw in everyday life, from sort of a layman’s perspective?

Those of us who did not support the proposition at the ballot were like, “The sky is going to fall. We’re going to have kids using marijuana. We’re going to have crime all over our cities.”

The reality is none of that happened, and you began to see people move from positions of trepidation and assumptions to feeling a little more comfortable as the industry rolled out. And they did it very responsibly, again, in collaboration with the government. You see responsible usage. You see responsible monitoring and managing of the industry.

Those fears have subsided, and we see kind of a settling in occurring and then just adapting to the challenges. That’s the kind of evolution I’ve watched over the last few years.

In Massachusetts, one of the big concerns has been impaired driving and underage access. I was curious how Denver and Colorado have approached those things.

You do see law enforcement agencies equipping themselves with the right tools to test for THC as they pull drivers over. Have we seen some of that? Yeah, we’ve seen some of the driving under the influence. Unfortunately, people make bad decisions, and we’ve had to make sure that our officers have the ability to test it, because we didn’t early on.

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Have we seen young people continue to use marijuana? Yeah — but not on the scale we thought we would, in terms of the legalization and the accessibility of it. It hasn’t been at an alarming pace. In fact, it’s remained flat and declined in some areas.

I know you originally opposed legalization when it was on the ballot, but how has your thinking on the subject changed since the entire industry has been implemented?

Once it passed, my whole responsibility was to make sure we implement it responsibly. I laid out the ground rules for my administration and worked with the city council to, I think, put together a pretty responsible regulatory framework and make sure agencies had the tools necessary to enforce the law.

And, I gotta tell you, I’m proud of how the industry came to the table with a willingness to collaborate and make sure we were able to accomplish the mission at hand. They did not want to see it go bad anymore.

It’s been a collaborative process, and so yes I’m involved and I got a lot of respect for the industry. It’s no longer just this idea that we’re trying out. This is an industry in our city, in our state.

Based on what Denver saw, what would you say that Boston should expect, as we’re still in the midst of rolling out the industry?

You should expect that there will be challenges, but the key is collaboration. It’s about making sure the industry is at the table from the very beginning. Do not draw the lines between government and the industry. Make sure they’re there. They’re your partners. They’re going to take responsibility for this. If you have that relationship from the beginning, then when those challenges that you did not expect come, it allows you to sit back at the table and work through those.

And there will be some contentious, very difficult ones. Pesticides, for example, was one we ran into where our home grow industry — our home grows were threatened because they used pesticides and the government simply could not permit that, because of the health of people.

Those are things you gotta be able to work through and the only way you do that is to build that relationship early and interact often.

Are there any other examples you faced where engaging the industry was key?

Pesticides was one. The other one was the infused products and how we were able to work together to measure the amount of THC in these products.

That’s not something that came top of mind at the very beginning. But we have to know that because people are buying candy, they’re buying cookies, they’re buying whatever — we gotta be able to monitor the levels of THC in each of these products so that people are safe and they aren’t freaking out when they eat an entire cookie.

These are very complex, very difficult issues. The fact that we had a relationship helped us get through them, because — again — you’re not gonna always agree and you gotta be able to work through those challenges and trust one another to get through them.

I know you recently proposed a 2 percent tax increase on marijuana sales to help pay for affordable housing in the city. Could you explain how Denver has used the revenue from the retail tax on marijuana in the past, as well as what this proposal would do?

Sure. As the marijuana revenue was coming in, it basically became part of our general fund. One of the things I was very committed to was not to overly earmark those dollars, because we didn’t know how sustainable it would be over the years.

Now that we’re four, five years in, we’re starting to see some patterns with regards to the revenue.

I have used the resources to help pay for a recreation center in Denver, as part of our financial stacking there. We have invested in after-school programming for kids. Education around marijuana use for our young people has been huge. We’ve been able to invest in recreational programs for our young people, medical support, medical services, homeless services.

Just recently, as you pointed out, last year we made an allocation of marijuana money for transportation infrastructure, but also affordable housing. We’re going to propose an increase to permanently devote 2 percent of our revenue to affordable housing.

Is there anything when it comes to this industry that, if you could go back, you would do differently?

I’m sure there are a lot of lessons around it that we would do differently. Some are minor; some are big. I don’t know if there’s anything that jumps out saying, “Boy, we wouldn’t do that.”

We were very methodical and very thoughtful rolling this out. It was important to us not to over-promise ourselves or over-commit the resources, because we just simply did not know how it was going to pan out in Denver.

Besides engaging the industry, is there any particular policy or pieces of advice that you would tell leaders in Boston that they should do in this next year or so?

Well I think, one, it takes leadership, and I felt someone had to stand up and say, “Here are our values.” And if this industry is going to come in to play here in Denver, they’re going have to be in line with our values.

One was to protect our children. Two was protect our neighborhood. And we were going to regulate, and we were going to enforce, and we were going to tax. Once we had those boundaries laid out, the reality was it was pretty, I don’t want to say easy, but it made for an easy application or at least the practical application of the laws that we wanted to put forth.

Is there anything else that you want to add or plug or think is important to mention?

One of the things that we want to point out is that now 46 states have legalized some form of marijuana policy in the United States, including Guam, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C.

We have proposed a resolution here at the U.S. Conference of Mayors. It came out of committee, and it goes before the general conference today. The reality — Boston is going to deal with this, as well as other states that come online — is that the federal government laws are not aligned with what the rest of the nation is doing.

We simply need to fix [the fact that marijuana is listed as a Schedule 1 drug] on the federal level to allow for the industry to bank, which is a huge deal. The resolution is about creating this coalition of mayors that will work at the federal level to begin to change some of those policies.

This will be one of the more powerful coalitions going to Washington, talking about more sensible policies around the marijuana industry. That will help all of us who now have this in our cities. The reality is that we’ve got some opportunity here, and mayors are willing to step up and say it’s time for us to work together with the federal government to get some sensible laws on the books.

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