‘Don’t freak out’ about federal marijuana crackdown, say Colorado AG and governor

Author: Marianne Goodland and Joey Bunch - January 4, 2018 - Updated: January 16, 2018

slain deputyColorado Gov. John Hickenlooper talks with reporters in his office on Jan. 4. (Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

Attorney General Cynthia Coffman  had no advance warning from the Department of Justice that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was planning to reverse nine years of marijuana policy issued by the Obama administration.

That said, Coffman, a Republican, advised both Colorado consumers of marijuana and the dispensaries that sell it to stay calm while the state reviews the changes.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said much the same Thursday. He said he doubts the Justice Department has the resources to conduct investigation and raids plus bear the massive legal costs of lawsuits brought by states such as Colorado, where voters have legalized it.

“We don’t see this having an impact on how we’re operating,” the governor said.

Hickenlooper called it a “shot across the bow” by Sessions, but with about two-thirds of the nation’s population living in states have legalized some form of marijuana, it’s time for Congress to pass laws that clarify their legal status.

Sessions on Thursday reversed three Obama-era regulations that basically kept the federal government at arm’s’ length when it came to enforcement of federal drug laws regarding marijuana.

“I’ve met with Gen. Sessions, and he believes that in any way encouraging people to use drugs of any kind, including marijuana, does not make this country stronger,” Hickenlooper said. “It makes this country weaker. He believes that.

“That being said, he said to me, he said to Sen. (Cory) Gardner and he’s said to a number of other governors that he recognizes the limitations of the federal government, and its priorities will continue to be heroin and the opioid epidemic, sex trafficking and other issues. They are not going to take away resources from those higher-magnitude problems to address some pot dispensary on South Broadway.”

Sessions’ announcement said it would be up the individual United States Attorneys to determine priorities on marijuana enforcement. That’s good news for Colorado, Coffman told reporters. She spoke to U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer shortly after the Sessions announcement and also sent him a letter, confirming that she believed it was important that his office continue to focus its enforcement efforts on black and gray market marijuana, and “not target marijuana businesses who [sic] abide by the law.”

The biggest change in Sessions’ announcement appears to be the elimination of what’s known as the Cole Memo, a 2013 memo from U.S. Attorney General James Cole that ordered police and prosecutors to focus enforcement efforts on marijuana in areas such preventing its distribution to minors, preventing criminal enterprises and cartels from engaging in illegal activity, and a focus on public health. Coffman said she believes those are still critical areas that should be continued.

The state has worked diligently to implement the will of the citizens who voted to legalize recreational marijuana under Amendment 64, Coffman said. As attorney general, “it is my responsibility to defend our state laws, and I will continue to do so, There is a still a lot we don’t know about what enforcement priorities the Justice Department will implement.”

In the past, Coffman said her office has worked well with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Colorado on enforcement and teamwork, “and I expect that partnership will continue.” Coffman said she confirmed that with Troyer prior to the news conference. She said she doesn’t believe there will be a significant change to enforcement in Colorado. “Our approach and priorities will not change as a result of what we’ve heard today,” she said.

Would the state of Colorado sue over this? Coffman said that if there is a situation where she needs to step up and tell the federal government that they’re overreaching  and “now in our business, I will certainly do that.”

Coffman added that she did not believe the U.S. attorneys were notified in advance of the announcement, attributing it to a possible difference of opinion with the Department of Justice over marijuana enforcement.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, whose administration has fought vigorously against marijuana social clubs, said he was disappointed by the Justice Department announcement.

“Denver and Colorado residents voted overwhelmingly to legalize recreational marijuana in our state in 2012, Hancock said in a statement. “The decision today by Attorney General Sessions to roll back the guidance we received from the Obama Justice Department is severely disappointing and lacks good judgment. They should respect the will of our voters, and this is just another example that this administration doesn’t listen, doesn’t pay attention and just doesn’t care. I urge our congressional representatives to take immediate action to protect our voters’ will from this disastrous decision.”

“Don’t freak out,” Coffman advised.

Hickenlooper said he wasn’t satisfied that there a black market exists for marijuana in his state, but he didn’t sound extraordinarily worried about it, either.

Before legalization, there was an obvious black market, because all pot was illegal.

“Now the people who cultivate marijuana, the people who process marijuana, the people who sell marijuana are not criminals,” he said. “They’re not committing any crimes. They get paychecks, legal paychecks. I hope that continues.

“It’s not a black market anymore. It’s not a criminal activity, and we would hate for the state to have to go backwards.”

Nonetheless, Hickenlooper said the state can and must do more to keep legal pot from being sold illegally elsewhere. He noted that illicit drug dealers don’t care who they sell to, including children. Dispensaries could lose their license for not following the state’s strict regulations.

The governor said he didn’t find a correlation between pot and increasing crime rates, but he has seen studies that it reduced use of opioids and other harder drugs.

“I do think everyone is working as hard as they can and understands the  sense of urgency to get this right,” Hickenlooper said. “I think in the next two or three years that black market might never be zero but it will be largely gone.”

Whether the state should jump into a lawsuit over Session’s order, Hickenlooper was circumspect.

“I do know we’re going to look at it. I’m a little more cautious in dealing with the Justice Department. I don’t think there’s any benefit to getting into a controversy, finger-pointing . You don’t want to inflame emotions when you’ve got thousands of people’s jobs, hundreds of people’s businesses at risk, right?

“You escalate this into a war, you can’t predict want the consequences are.”.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.