Sessions pushing on pot
AG: State not keeping its promises to watch marijuana use closely
Attorney General Jeff Sessions says Colorado isn’t making good on its promises to stop marijuana from spilling over its borders, nor is the state keeping it out of the hands of kids.
Sessions raised “serious questions” about the state’s marijuana regulation and called on Gov. John Hickenlooper to remedy the situation in a letter that arrived at the Colorado Capitol late Thursday, officials said.
The governors of at least two other states that have legalized the use and sale of recreational cannabis also received letters from the attorney general addressing the failings of their respective state marijuana regulatory structures.
In his letter to Hickenlooper, Sessions cited data from a September 2016 report by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), a federally funded agency operated by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The report claimed increases in highway patrol seizures, youth use, traffic deaths and emergency department visits since 2014, when marijuana was legalized in Colorado.
“These findings are relevant to the policy debate concerning marijuana legalization,” Sessions wrote. “Please advise as to how Colorado plans to address the serious findings in the Rocky Mountain HIDTA report, including efforts to ensure that all marijuana activity is compliant with state marijuana laws, to combat diversion of marijuana, to protect public health and safety, and to prevent marijuana use by minors.”
The letter’s message was practically identical to that of a letter
Sessions sent to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. Officials for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s office said they also received a letter from Sessions, but declined to share it.
Notable passages in the Colorado and Washington letters highlight where Sessions sees flexibility for federal enforcement actions under the 2013 Cole Memorandum — Obamaera guidance for how prosecutors and law enforcement could prioritize their marijuana-related enforcement efforts.
“What is interesting here, however, is that Sessions’ accusations (are) that states are not complying with the Cole Memo, perhaps suggesting he is fine with the Cole Memo just not the previous administration’s enforcement of it,” said John Hudak, a drug policy expert and senior fellow with the left-leaning Brookings Institution.
Colorado officials are taking the issues Sessions raised in the letter “very seriously,” said Mark Bolton, Hickenlooper’s marijuana adviser, adding that state officials share the attorney general’s concerns.
But he said he doesn’t think Sessions is hinting in the letter at any forthcoming federal enforcement actions on marijuana.
“We want to engage in a dialogue with the attorney general, the White House, the Justice Department about the most effective ways that the state and the federal government can work together to protect our priorities of public safety, public health and other law enforcement priorities,” he said.
Sessions’ latest letters are a response to an April 3 letter from Hickenlooper and the governors of Alaska, Oregon and Washington that implored the attorney general and treasury secretary to “engage with us before embarking on any changes to regulatory and enforcement systems.”
Sessions has taken a hard-line stance against state-level marijuana legalization efforts since his appointment as attorney general. His bellicose language has generated concern among legalization advocates that the Trump administration might abandon the hands-off approach of the previous administration.
Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said she will continue to defend Colorado’s marijuana laws.
“But at the same time, I have always said that legalized marijuana presents significant challenges and public officials need to remain vigilant,” she said in an emailed statement that cited recent busts of large illegal marijuana operations in Colorado. “We cannot allow bad actors to use our laws as a shield.”
She added she is hopeful that Colorado can work in concert with federal officials.
“In recent years, Washington, D.C., has offered little leadership on this issue. Attorney General Sessions’ letter suggests new interest in a strong federal-state law enforcement partnership aimed at protecting public safety in this area, something I look forward to exploring,” she wrote.
Two weeks ago, officials from the Justice Department and other federal agencies met with about 20 representatives from a variety of Colorado agencies involved in marijuana regulation. Colorado officials presented a slew data about marijuana regulation and how the state is addressing public health, safety and law enforcement concerns.
Sessions’ latest letter is a continuation of the dialogue between Colorado and federal officials, Bolton said. “We take (this letter) as an opportunity to continue the conversation.”
Colorado officials are preparing a response, which will include a comprehensive review of the relevant data, Bolton said.
However, the state has been cautious about drawing hard conclusions about the correlation of marijuana with various public health and safety issues, he said. The data are still quite new and there needs to be greater points of comparison.
“I think we need to give it some time,” he said.
The HIDTA reports Sessions cited in his letters have come under criticism in the past, and the law enforcement agencies compiling them are “notorious for using data out of context or drawing grand conclusions that data ultimately do not support,” the Brookings Institution’s Hudak said.
“This is an inappropriate use of data from the attorney general and shows an obvious disinterest in seeking the right answer that can advance effective public policy,” he said. “Instead, Mr. Sessions is committed to cherry-picking information that fit into his world view. When it comes to Mr. Sessions and marijuana, ignorance seems to be a pre-existing condition, and he has no interest in seeking treatment for that ailment.”
Officials for the Rocky Mountain HIDTA did not return multiple requests for comment.