Ses­sions push­ing on pot

AG: State not keep­ing its prom­ises to watch mar­i­juana use closely

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Ali­cia Wal­lace

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.

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