A new war on drugs? Colorado lawmakers just say no
April 26, 2018
The Trump administration has declared war on marijuana, but so far it's mostly just a war of words — and the cannabis industry thinks it's winning.
After a year of saber rattling, Attorney General Jeff Sessions took one of his only concrete steps against state-legal marijuana in January, when he ended an Obama-era policy of non-interference in states where the drug is legal.
The Cole memo, as it's known, was drafted in 2013, a year after Colorado voters legalized marijuana. It promised to keep the feds out of state's business on marijuana as long as they keep the drug out of the hands of minors.
Sessions' announcement that he was rescinding the memo drew the ire of Colorado's congressional delegation, sending Republican Sen. Cory Gardner on a quixotic mission to hold up nominations at the Justice Department.
"I think one of the most concrete and direct responses to Sessions’ rhetoric has been an increase in the number of co-sponsors in Congress for comprehensive marijuana reform."
— Morgan Fox
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Gardner ultimately relented, but his conversion from prohibitionist to pot advocate was a sign that public opinion is firmly on legal marijuana's side. It also suggested that Sessions' heated rhetoric could actually be a rallying point for pot's growing coalition of supporters.
"I think one of the most concrete and direct responses to Sessions' rhetoric has been an increase in the number of co-sponsors in Congress for comprehensive marijuana reform," said Morgan Fox, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "It has made some people who aren't even fans of legalization take a principled stand because they were told their states were going to be left alone."
In practical terms, Fox said it was unlikely that the policy reversal would lead to changes on the ground. Individual prosecutors decide what criminal cases they bring, and many are loath to go after the highly popular marijuana industry. Colorado U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer, for one, put out a statement on the day of Sessions' announcement declaring his office wouldn't be altering its hands-off approach to pot.
"We haven't heard of any action being taken against businesses or individuals that are in compliance with state law, so we're really seeing no practical impact at this point," Fox said.
Sessions fired another salvo last month, sending a memo to prosecutors urging them to seek the death penalty in cases involving large-scale drug traffickers. The memo cited an existing but obscure law allowing for such a punishment; those trafficking in 60,000 kilograms of marijuana or more could in theory qualify.
Many in the industry wrote off the memo as bluster, and its main focus was opioids — not state-legal cannabis operations. Nonetheless, it sent a chilling message to business owners producing thousands of pounds of marijuana.
"In a technical sense, there is a concerning possibility now that (the death penalty) could be applied, but I think that's really unlikely," Fox said. "It would be politically terrible, and we just aren't seeing any federal cases brought against state-compliant businesses."
Most budtenders and growers have gotten used to the overheated rhetoric. Their response to Sessions' latest provocation was generally the same as it was for those before it: a collective shrug.
"It does really suck to hear those things, but we just like to try and stay optimistic," said Kelsey Hlatki, a store manager at Altitude Organics in Dillon. "Even though there's a lot of things being said, public opinion and a majority of voters are on our side. So it's just talk, and when it comes down to it, everyone's going to stand up for what they want."
If anything, Hlatki said, the rhetoric keeps the industry on its toes and careful about following state law. When Sessions' next broadside comes, marijuana sellers will likely do what they've always done since Colorado legalized the drug: keep their heads down and trust they have friends in high places.
"Our manager talked to us and told us not to worry, but we haven't been too concerned and nothing has really happened," Hlatki said. "We haven't had to make any drastic changes or anything, it's just kind of been following the same laws as before and making sure we're always compliant with state law."
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