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Colorado Lashes Back After Sessions’ Decision To Axe Obama Pot Policy

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Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner

The response in Colorado to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ approach on marijuana enforcement was clear: no you don’t.

What wasn’t immediately clear, is whether marijuana businesses and consumers in the state will be protected in the long term from federal prosecution.

It all began Thursday with Sessions’ decision to rescind Obama-era policies that discouraged enforcement of federal marijuana laws. That allowed the state’s billion-dollar recreational pot industry to flourish. Leaders in both political parties were outraged by the change, including U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who took to the Senate floor, visibly distraught.

“Up until about 8:58 [Thursday] morning, we believed in Colorado that state’s rights would be protected,” he said. “Until Twitter told us otherwise.”

He was referring to early reports of Sessions’ decision to roll back the “Cole Memo” and two additional memos related to the Department of Justice’s marijuana enforcement policy. The memos, issued in 2013 and 2014 under then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, paved the way for the rapid growth of recreational marijuana sales in Colorado and other states by essentially giving federal respect to state laws.

Dueling Statements On Marijuana Law

Gardner followed up on Sessions’ policy change with a written statement:

“Reports that the Justice Department will rescind their current policy on legal marijuana enforcement are extremely alarming,” he said. “Before I voted to confirm Attorney General Sessions, he assured me that marijuana would not be a priority for this Administration. Today’s action directly contradicts what I was told.... In 2016, President Trump said marijuana legalization should be left up to the states and I agree.”

Sessions called the measure  a “return to the rule of law,” guiding all U.S. attorneys to “follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions.” In his memo, Sessions reminded attorneys that federal law makes it illegal to sell or possess marijuana, and said that the Obama-era policies that discouraged prosecutions should be disregarded.

"It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and the previous issuance of guidance undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission," Sessions said in a statement. "Therefore, today's memo on federal marijuana enforcement simply directs all U.S. Attorneys to use previously established prosecutorial principles that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country.”

What Other Colorado Lawmakers Said

The move prompted a wave of critical responses from Colorado lawmakers, including many that take pride in the state’s legal recreational marijuana industry and even the agencies that regulate it.

Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman hastily called a press conference after Sessions’ announcement, where she said she expects the federal government to continue to focus its enforcement efforts and resources on the so-called gray and black markets, where marijuana growers and sellers continue to operate outside of the state’s heavily-regulated commercial industry.

“I want people to know -- I don’t think there is going to be a significant visible shift in how the marijuana industry or its customers do business,” she said.

Coffman also wrote a letter to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado, Robert “Bob” Troyer requesting more information about the federal governments change in enforcement efforts in the state.

In response, Troyer issued his own statement, saying the U.S. Attorney’s office in Colorado had always focused its efforts in marijuana-related prosecutions on “those who create the greatest safety threats to our communities around the state.”

“We will, consistent with the Attorney General’s latest guidance, continue to take this approach in all of our work with our law enforcement partners throughout Colorado,” he wrote.

What wasn’t clear was how long Troyer will serve in Colorado and what would happen if he is ever replaced with an attorney who shares Sessions’ views. Gardner, in his statement, said he is “prepared to take all steps necessary, including holding DOJ nominees, until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation.”

State Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Democrat, worried without guidelines like the Cole memo in place, the local, billion-dollar industry could get thrown into “chaos.”

“The federal government can step in at any point in time with any legal, regulated dispensary that’s operating above board with background checked employees that are behaving in a safe and effective manner and throwing those folks in jail, wasting federal dollars and wasting the lives of the people of Colorado,” he said.

Congresswoman Diana DeGette tweeted in response to the Department of Justice’s move, saying it undermines the rights of Coloradans and hurts an important industry.

“Unconscionable,” she wrote.

In a statement, Gov. John Hickenlooper defended the Cole memo, saying it was instrumental in guiding states’ efforts to regulate the production and distribution of marijuana.

“Colorado has created a comprehensive regulatory system committed to supporting the will of our voters,” he said. “We constantly evaluate and seek to strengthen our approach to regulation and enforcement. Our focus will continue to be the public health and public safety of our citizens. We are expanding efforts to eliminate the black market and keep marijuana out of the hands of minors and criminals. Today’s decision does not alter the strength of our resolve in those areas, nor does it change my constitutional responsibilities.”

Congressman Mike Coffman said the U.S. Constitution should limit what the federal government can do.

“The decision that was made to legalize marijuana in Colorado was made by the voters of Colorado, and only applies within the boundaries of our state,” he said in a statement. “Colorado had every right to legalize marijuana, and I will do everything I can to protect that right against the power of an overreaching federal government.”

Other Reactions In Colorado

Other responses from local business in advocates ranged from appalled to unsurprised.

“This is a blatant disregard for federalism, individual liberties and an attempt to return to a failed drug war ideology and prohibition,” tweeted Colorado NORML, a local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a national non-profit advocacy group.

Kayvan Khalatbari, co-founder of Denver Relief Consulting, one of the state’s oldest businesses in the cannabis industry, said he didn’t fear a crack down on Colorado’s law-abiding businesses.

“I think this is just another day in the cannabis industry,” he said. “There’s a lot of smoke and no fire.”

Khalatbari acknowledged the Cole memo’s important role in growing the country’s legal pot economy, but said Sessions’ decision to rescind it mainly highlighted the potential for future conflicts between state and federal marijuana policy.

“The Cole memo soothed a lot of the concerns people had in regards to this federal illegality and made it a lot safer,” he said. “When we saw that memo come about, we saw the grand expansion of cannabis.”

Since 2012, voters in eight states, including Colorado, have legalized sales and use of recreational marijuana. Last year, recreational sales in Colorado generated thousands of jobs and more than $200 million in tax revenues, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.


I cover a wide range of issues within Colorado’s dynamic economy including energy, labor, housing, beer, marijuana, elections and other general assignment stories.
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