U.S. Attorney General declares war on weed: Colorado backlash is immediate, strong
January 4, 2018
Attorney General Jeff Sessions rolled back an Obama-era policy that allowed Colorado and other states to legalize marijuana without federal interference.
Even before Sessions' announcement on Thursday, Jan. 4, Colorado's federal lawmakers said Sessions would get little cooperation from them, and maybe a political fight.
"This reported action directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation," said Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, in a statement. "With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in Colorado and other states."
Gardner said he is prepared to "take all steps necessary," including holding up Senate confirmation of Department of Justice nominees, until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment that Gardner says he made to him prior to his confirmation.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump had said marijuana legalization is a state issue.
"(President) Donald Trump had it right. This must be left up to the states," Gardner said.
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Rep. Scott Tipton also dug in his heels about the issue. Tipton's 3rd Congressional District covers most of Western Colorado, including the western two-thirds of Eagle County.
"The people of Colorado voted to legalize marijuana in the state, and I am committed to defending the will of Coloradans," Tipton said in a statement.
How we got here
In 2013, a year after Colorado voters passed Amendment 64 in 2012, a memo from then-U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole assured states that the feds would not interfere if states wanted to legalize marijuana. The condition was that pot must be regulated so it would not hinder federal law enforcement. Those regulations prevent marijuana from being distributed to minors, prevent its movement to other states and prevent it from being used as a cover for the trafficking of other drugs.
Sessions' memo Thursday rescinded Cole's 2013 memo.
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, lashed out at Sessions. Polis represents the 2nd Congressional District, including the eastern third of Eagle County.
"It is absurd that Attorney General Sessions has broken Trump's campaign promise and is now waging war on legal marijuana and states' rights," Polis said.
The marijuana industry has created 23,000 jobs and generated $200 million in tax revenue in Colorado, Polis said.
Polis called on Trump to overrule Sessions and "protect consumers, our economy, the will of the voters and states' rights."
States rights wronged?
For now, it's business as usual at Eagle's Sweet Leaf Pioneer and other dispensaries around the Vail Valley.
"It doesn't say anything other than they're doing away with the Cole memo. We were in business four years before the Cole memo," Sweet Leaf owner Dave Manzanares said.
Sessions has been talking about this since he was confirmed, Manzanares added, which has meant some worried nights in their home.
"We're not entirely certain what this means, and we've been thinking about this for a while. We don't have any more insight than anyone else," Manzanares said.
They know they're open, they'll stay open, and they'll stand on the foundation of states rights that allowed Colorado and other states to legalize marijuana, Manzanares said.
Manzanares added that the Eagle dispensary is not affiliated with the Denver stores with similar names, where budtenders were swept up in police raids.
Little local change
Thursday's federal action probably won't affect local law enforcement much, said Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek.
Sessions' edict falls loosely under the same umbrella as local enforcement of federal immigration laws, and the Sheriff's Office does not do that, van Beek said.
"We will protect anyone in Eagle County from any sort of abuse, but we don't typically enforce federal laws," van Beek said.
Van Beek said it will be up to the governments to work out whether Sessions' action falls under the U.S. Constitution's 10th Amendment guaranteeing states rights, or some other body of law.
Colorado's county sheriffs meet for a conference next week, and van Beek said he's confident marijuana will be a topic of spirited conversation.
Already doing that
Cynthia Coffman, Colorado Attorney General and candidate for governor, said her loyalties lie with the state.
"As Attorney General it is my responsibility to defend our state laws — and I will continue to do so," Coffman said. "There is still a lot we don't know about what enforcement priorities the Justice Department will implement. I expect, however, that the federal government will continue to focus their enforcement efforts and resources on combating the gray and black markets and diversion, and not target marijuana businesses who abide by our state's laws.
U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer, District of Colorado, indicated the Sessions memo might not change much about how his office does business, either. Sessions directed that federal marijuana prosecution decisions be governed by the same principles that governed all of Troyer's prosecution decisions, something Troyer said his office already does.
"The United States Attorney's Office in Colorado has already been guided by these principles in marijuana prosecutions — focusing in particular on identifying and prosecuting 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," Troyer said in a statement.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.