New Justice Department guidance gives Colorado some breathing room
By Bob Berwyn
*More Summit Voice coverage of marijuana laws is here
FRISCO — The U.S. Department of Justice will continue to walk a tightrope between federal and state drug laws, leaving some room for Colorado to administer legal use of marijuana, while reserving the right to prosecute violations of federal law.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Washington Governor Jay Inslee to discuss the new federal position on state marijuana laws, following up with a letter that says in part, “As we discussed, while the Department will not at this time seek to challenge your state’s law, we will neverthess continue to enforce the Controlled Substances Act in your state.”
Hickenlooper said the announcement shows that the federal government is respecting the will of Colorado voters.
“We recognize how difficult this issue has been for the Department of Justice and we appreciate the thoughtful approach it has taken. Amendment 64 put Colorado in conflict with federal law,” Hickenlooper said in a statement.
“We share with the federal government its priorities going forward. We are working to improve education and prevention efforts directed at young people and on enforcement tools to prevent access to marijuana by those under 21 years of age. We are also determined to keep marijuana businesses from being fronts for criminal enterprises or other illegal activity, and we are committed to preventing the exportation of marijuana out of Colorado while also enhancing efforts to keep state roads safer from impaired drivers,” Hickenlooper said.
The long-awaited Justice Department announcement was hailed by marijuana advocates in Colorado, who said it could mark the first step toward national legalization.
“We’re pleased and it’s what we expected,” said Breckenridge-based attorney Sean McAllister, spokesman for Colorado NORML. “I think it’s definitely clear enough, better than it’s ever been before. It goes farther than some of the medical marijuana memos,” McAllister said, referring to the new federal guidance on marijuana enforcement.
The Justice Department spelled out that it’s still bound by federal law, which classifies marijuana as a dangerous drug that generates big money for “criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels.” The department is committed to enforcing the Controlled Substances Act consistent with those determinations, the guidance memo continues.
The memo spells out several key area where the federal government will focus its investigative and enforcement resources, including preventing distribution of marijuana to minors and preventing revenues from the sale of marijuana from flowing into the coffers of gangs and cartels.
The feds also want to prevent the diversion of marijuana from states where it’s legal to other states, and will continue to crack down on grow operations on federal public lands.
“Everybody agrees with keeping it away from kids and keeping organized crime out of it,” McAllister said, adding that legalization will actually help achieve those goals. For example, he said local bans in places like Fort Collins are counterproductive.
“They guarantee the existence of a black market,” he said. The new guidance means that local governments can’t hide behind the veil of federal uncertainty anymore, he said, adding that local governments should reconsider their policies in light of the new federal guidance.
McAllister said he’s hopeful the new guidance will lead Congress to enshrine the policy into law, as proposed by several Colorado lawmakers who want to remove marijuana from the list of drugs regulated by the Controlled Substances Act. Otherwise, the federal policy could change under an administration with a different ideology.
The Justice Department said its new guidance is based on an expectation that state and local governments will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that “will address the threat those state laws pose to public safety, public health and other law enforcement interests.”
If state efforts are inadequate, the federal government reserves the right to challenge the regulatory structure itself, the guidance memo explains.
Those stringent conditions could pose a challenge for Colorado, which is still far from have such a structure in place, said Summit County Sheriff John Minor. Voters will have to approve a separate marijuana tax measure in November which is intended to help fund the administration and enforcement of marijuana laws. If the ballot measure doesn’t pass, Colorado could be back to square one, Minor said.
On the other hand, over-regulation and over-taxation could lead to more black market activity, McAllister said, supporting a laissez-faire approach.
State officials said a regulatory scheme is in the works.
“Here at the Department of Revenue we take very seriously our role in enforcing the State Constitution, statutes and regulations for the marijuana industry in Colorado,” Colorado Department of Revenue director Barbara Brohl said in a release. “We are working on the development and implementation of a robust, rigorous regulatory oversight and enforcement program,” Brohl said.
“The Marijuana Enforcement Division will soon adopt permanent rules that address strict inventory control, packaging and labeling requirements, keeping marijuana out of the hands of children, and licensing requirements that include a fingerprint-based background check on owners and employees.”
Congressman Jared Polis said the new federal stance could be a boost for small marijuana-related businesses.
“I am thrilled Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice are allowing Colorado and Washington to regulate their own state laws regarding recreational and medicinal marijuana,” Polis said in a statement. “This is a big step in allowing small businesses to grow and succeed while following state and federal laws. I am hopeful that other states may see marijuana regulation as an opportunity to reduce crime, combat drug abuse, and enhance economic opportunity.”
“I fully support the eight priorities outlined by Attorney General Holder including prosecution for marijuana distribution to minors and protecting motorists from drugged drivers. This new sensible approach by the federal government will make all of us safer and respect the rights of states to determine how best to regulate marijuana within their borders.”
Filed under: Colorado, federal government, law enforcement Tagged: | Colorado Department of Revenue, Colorado marijuana laws, Controlled Substances Act, Eric Holder, federal government, Justice Department, U.S. Department of Justice