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Pot and the race for Colorado governor: Where's the love?

DENVER, Colorado - In Colorado's neck-and-neck gubernatorial race, neither of the main candidates are big fans of the state's famous issue: Legal marijuana.

Even before it passed as a ballot initiative in 2012, both candidates opposed the idea of allowing retail sales of the drug. They just disagree on who was louder about it.

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Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) is running for reelection in a tight race where the question of legal marijuana keeps coming up.
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"I'm not aware of him coming out and formally opposing it, like I did, when it was on the ballot," Gov. John Hickenlooper said in an interview with CBS News.

"I didn't like it in the first place," said Bob Beauprez, the Republican challenger. "Where was his leadership then?"

Both candidates express their worries about the effects of the drug on developing minds.

Beauprez said has never consumed marijuana, calling it "the one thing I've managed to miss in my entire life." Hickenlooper sheepishly admitted he's used it and shrugged, saying, "When I was younger, I did a lot of dumb things."

Both candidates say they will enforce and implement the law as it was passed, but neither is enthusiastic about it - a striking position in a state that voted by a wide margin to legalize retail sales of the drug in 2012.

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Bob Beauprez (R) is running for governor in a neck-and-neck race.
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Eleven months after the law officially kicked in, Coloradans will vote in a gubernatorial election dominated by other issues besides pot, like jobs, health care, public safety or reproductive rights. Yet marijuana still comes up frequently on the campaign trail, perhaps because of the growing number of dispensaries dotting Colorado, the millions in tax revenue coming in from sales and the increasing clout of the newly legal industry.

Marijuana came to the fore in the race for governor at an early October debate in which, when was asked if he thought Colorado's move to allow sales of the drug was reckless, Hickenlooper replied, "I opposed it from the beginning. Ah what the hell, I'll say it was reckless."

"That was in a debate," Hickenlooper later explained. "You don't have time to think. They said, 'Well, did you think it was reckless?' I guess it was. What I meant was it was risky."

The comment led to national headlines, and to calls between his campaign and the marijuana industry.

"When I make a comment like that about any industry, right - if I say something that could be misinterpreted - we try to always reach out and say, 'Alright, here's what the intention was,'" Hickenlooper said.

Michael Elliott, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, was one of the people who spoke with the campaign.

"I talk with the governor's office about a lot of issues," said Elliott, whose trade organization lobbies on behalf of marijuana businesses. "I did in fact talk with them about those comments and we did emphasize our frustration with it."

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Tax revenue from marijuana sales in Colorado is projected to top $47 million this fiscal year.
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The episode, and Hickenlooper's scaling back from "reckless" to "risky" showed that marijuana is now an industry in Colorado whose sensitivities politicians in the state now need to consider -- especially those in a tight race.

The lucrative industry is also playing the political money game. One marijuana industry fundraiser over the summer reportedly brought in about $40,000 for the Hickenlooper campaign.

Giving money to Hickenlooper angered some activists in the cannabis community, like Kayvan Khalatbari, a marijuana business owner and advocate for the cause.

"I got in a little heat with these operators, some are my friends, because I called them out personally as traitors because I think that giving money to someone like that who's been against our cause and us as people for so long probably warrants, I don't know, some consideration for a change in tone," he said.

The fundraiser also led to criticism of Hickenlooper for taking money from an industry he doesn't condone. Beauprez called it "the very definition of hypocrisy," adding that he "wouldn't knowingly accept" such donations.

Hickenlooper downplayed the importance of the donations, saying, "I don't know how much money we've raised from the marijuana industry. I mean we don't track it, but if it's more than a hundredth of a percent, I'd be amazed. Maybe a tenth of a percent," he said. "It's a de minimis, it would have no effect on our policy."

Then there is the issue of repeal. Hickenlooper has said a vote on repealing the law would be premature. Beauprez made waves at a debate this month when he was asked about it. His response - "I think we're at that point" - was largely read as an endorsement of repeal.

Yet Beauprez's position can feel a little like a moving target. At one point during our interview he opined, "If voters want to repeal this law, that's a long ways down the road I think." Beauprez criticized Hickenlooper for failing to lead on repealing legalized retail pot, but when pressed, he repeatedly refused to say whether he would lead a repeal campaign if elected.

"Because I don't think that we know yet. That's the issue. This was just passed. It's brand new. And there is some evidence coming in," he said, citing reports about the long-term impact of marijuana on adolescent brains.

"That causes one to take a little pause. But there's also those on the other side who say, 'you know, this is a legitimate business. We voted for it. We passed it by the way, maybe we ought to enforce it and study it for a while.' That's where I'm at. Let's just be objective about this. And make sure that you do listen to all the people. And I don't know that - well, in fact I do know - we're not there yet."

Even given his ambiguity on the issue, the prevailing perception in the pot industry is that Beauprez could be bad for business.

"I think the marijuana community is more likely to support Gov. Hickenlooper because we've seen this rollout work," said Elliott. "And if Bob Beauprez were to win, I think there would just be uncertainty and he seems to be a little more hostile to the industry as well."

In Colorado, the fledgling cannabis industry is just getting started. Tax revenue from marijuana sales is projected to top $47 million this fiscal year. And the industry is already making a political impact on the local level and with the state legislature and regulatory agencies.

"Where they have had their first political activity is lobbying on these taxes; on the regulation; on local dispensaries; on permits for local dispensaries," said Floyd Ciruli, head of the Denver-based public policy research and consulting firm Ciruli Associates.

Activists promise they'll be an increasingly vocal force in the big races to come -- one candidates will have to reckon with. So, while this gubernatorial election is less focused on any real next steps to be taken on legalized retail marijuana, the industry will be looking for opportunities to solidify and even amplify its presence in Colorado in elections to come.

"We are building up and we are maturing into more of a political constituency," said Elliott. "And as years go by, I think that we're probably going to have higher expectations of our elected officials to support what we're doing."

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    Alexander is a digital reporter for CBSNews.com. He previously worked as a multimedia reporter for POLITICO, where he covered the 2012 presidential campaign.