Colorado lawmakers fire back at AG Sessions' move to rescind Obama-era pot rules

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Washington, D.C.-, January 4, 2018 | comments

Colorado lawmakers are firing back at U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who announced today he has rescinded the Obama-era Justice Department policy that paved the way for a hands-off approach to states that have legalized marijuana.

"Given the Department's well-established general principles, previous nationwide guidance specific to marijuana enforcement is unnecessary and is rescinded, effective immediately," Sessions said in a one-page memo sent to federal prosecutors nationwide.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, said that if the Justice Department urges federal prosecutors to enforce marijuana laws more aggressively in states such as Colorado that have legalized sales of the drug, it will undermine people’s rights and jeopardize an important industry.

“This step could drag us back to the days of raids on legal dispensaries and people living in fear of being jailed for using the medical marijuana they need,” DeGette said. “It could create a chilling effect on an industry that employs thousands of people in Colorado alone, where sales now top $1 billion per year. The federal government shouldn’t take punitive steps that undermine the will of our citizens expressed at the state level.”

In August 2013, Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued guidance regarding marijuana-related financial crimes. The memo steers federal enforcement efforts away from marijuana sales made legal under state law to focus instead on various criminal activities linked to pot, such as money laundering, selling marijuana to minors and using pot sales as a pretext for the trafficking of other drugs. The guidance became known as the "The Cole Memo."

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, said Session's move Thursday contradicts what the former Alabama senator had said prior to his confirmation as AG.

"I am prepared to take all steps necessary, including holding DOJ nominees, until the attorney general lives up the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation," Gardner said in a statement.


“Before I voted to confirm Attorney General Sessions, he assured me that marijuana would not be a priority for this administration," Gardner added.

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, said the move rolls back the progress that has been made to balance the laws of Colorado with the priorities of federal law enforcement.

“The Cole Memo provided assurances to states like Colorado with marijuana use and a strict regulatory structure in place by allowing these states to proceed according to the will of their voters," Perlmutter said. "While it did not relieve all uncertainty, especially for financial institutions, it was a step forward. Today’s announcement creates even greater uncertainty in the industry and shows a lack of respect for states’ rights."

In April, Gov. John Hickenlooper joined with the governors of three other western states where recreational marijuana is legal to ask the administration of President Donald Trump to stand by a policy from the administration of former president Barack Obama that more or less kept the federal government out of states’ business when it came to pot.

The letter to Sessions and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin didn’t strike the defiant tone of recent letters to the administration on climate policy.

Instead, Hickenlooper — along with Oregon’s Kate Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, all Democrats; and Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent — rather gently asked the new administration “to engage with us before embarking on any changes to the regulatory and enforcement systems.”

Marijuana is illegal under federal law, but the so-called Cole Memo, issued by the U.S. Justice Department in 2013, outlined how states that have legalized marijuana sales could develop their own policies and avoid interference from the feds.

U.S. Rep Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, said he is committed to defending Coloradans' decision to legalize marijuana sales. In a statement today he said:

“The announcement by the Department of Justice is a drastic departure from the Attorney General’s previous commitment to Senator Cory Gardner during the confirmation process that he would uphold the Obama Administration’s treatment of marijuana enforcement and President Trump’s comments that he would leave it to the states.

"Furthermore it creates even greater confusion and uncertainty by leaving enforcement decisions up to federal prosecutors. The Department of Justice should provide guidance on enforcement of marijuana for states that have voted to legalize it. The people of Colorado voted to legalize marijuana in the state, and I am committed to defending the will of Coloradans.”

Content originally published by the Denver Business Journal on January 4, 2018.
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