Lawmakers, industry leaders denounce White House marijuana enforcement signals

Author: Ernest Luning - February 23, 2017 - Updated: February 23, 2017

State Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, talks about the history of Colorado small towns behind the counter at Bread Bar, a Silver Plume establishment he owns with several partners, on Oct. 1, 2016. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)
State Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, talks about the history of Colorado small towns behind the counter at Bread Bar, a Silver Plume establishment he owns with several partners, on Oct. 1, 2016. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)

Word that the White House could begin cracking down on the marijuana trade in states that have legalized the drug drew swift rebuke Thursday from Democratic lawmakers in Colorado, the first state to cultivate a recreational pot industry.

“Whether it is building a wall or stripping protections for trans students, President Trump has already shown he’s willing to trample Colorado values to further his regressive agenda,” said state Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, in a statement. “Now, he’s going to use his Department of Justice to trample states’ rights? The people of Colorado voted for the legalization of recreational marijuana, and the federal government needs to respect the will of Coloradans.”

Fenberg said it was time for his fellow lawmakers, including those across the aisle, to back up their rhetoric by standing up to the administration on behalf of the state and its constitution.

“I call on my colleagues — especially my Republican colleagues — to join me in defending Colorado’s responsible marijuana regulations, the industry leaders who contribute to our economy, and the rights of everyday Coloradans,” he said.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer reminded reporters on Thursday afternoon that federal law stands in the way of targeting medical marijuana operations but added, “I do believe that you’ll see greater enforcement,” when he was asked about legalized recreational pot.

Voters in eight states — Alaska, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, in addition to Colorado — have legalized marijuana, although federal law still classifies it as an illegal, controlled substance.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Boulder Democrat and a founder of the bipartisan congressional Cannabis Caucus, invoked states’ rights and the burgeoning marijuana economy in his sharp criticism of Spicer’s statement.

“The president has said time and again that the decision about marijuana needs to be left to the states,” Polis said in a statement. “Now either the president is flip-flopping or his staff is, once again, speaking out of turn; either way, these comments leave doubt and uncertainty for the marijuana industry, stifling job growth in my state. The public has spoken on recreational marijuana, we’ve seen it work in Colorado, and now is the time to lift the federal prohibition.”

Medical marijuana is legal in 28 states and the District of Columbia.

“That’s very different than the recreational use, which is something the Department of Justice, I think, will be further looking into,” Spicer said. The Department of Justice didn’t respond to an inquiry about its policy going forward.

Spicer further infuriated pot advocates and their supporters by comparing marijuana use to opioid addiction.

“I think that when you see something like the opioid-addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people,” Spicer said. “There’s still a federal law that we need to abide by when it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature.”

Kristi Kelly, executive director of the Colorado-based Marijuana Industry Group, excoriated the potential shift in federal policy on numerous fronts.

The marijuana trade association, Kelly said in a statement, “supports the will of the voters of the state of Colorado and the legitimacy of the medical and recreational programs. The Colorado cannabis programs are heavily regulated, heavily taxed and heavily enforced by state and local governments. Resources are better spent pursuing illegal cartels than state- and locally licensed, taxpaying business operators. We believe in upholding the tenets of the Cole Memorandum.”

She was referring to an August 2013 memo written by Deputy Attorney General James Cole, which reordered priorities for federal prosecutors in states that had legalized marijuana — both medical and recreational — from strict enforcement to a more permissive approach.

“We see this as a state’s rights issue,” Kelly said, citing the voter-approved constitutional amendments establishing Colorado’s medical and recreational marijuana industries, along with complex laws and regulations.

Like Polis, she pointed to the economic impact of legalized pot, saying the $1.3 billion in annual sales injected more than $3 billion into the state’s economy, including nearly $200 million in taxes and fees.

“Deconstruction of this market would likely cause a recession in the state,” she said. “Colorado Gov. (John) Hickenlooper has further affirmed that he sees issue of marijuana as a state’s rights issue. Further, 71 percent of Americans would oppose a federal crackdown on of legal marijuana, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll.”

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.

One comment

  • T dog

    February 24, 2017 at 12:09 am

    Huge mistake by the Trump Admin. Hyuuuge.

Comments are closed.