Sessions to Hickenlooper: Marijuana still unsafe; task force report says crackdown unlikely

DENVER – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions made clear in a letter sent to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper that the governor received this week that he still believes an Obama-era Justice Department memo does nothing to protect states with legal marijuana from being prosecuted by the federal government, but documents obtained by the AP show a federal task force on marijuana might think otherwise.

Hickenlooper and the governors of Alaska, Oregon and Washington sent a letter to Sessions and the Treasury Secretary in early April urging Sessions and the Justice Department to work with them and come see their states’ programs before changing any federal rules regarding marijuana.

In the letter, Hickenlooper and the other governors praised the 2013 Cole Memo, which essentially allowed states to operate legal marijuana programs without the interference of federal officials, and asks the new administration not to change it.

“The Cole Memo and the related Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) guidance provide the foundation for state regulatory systems and are vital to maintaining control over marijuana in our states,” the letter governors wrote at the time. “Overhauling the Cole Memo is sure to produce unintended and harmful consequences.”

Their letter said that changing the Cole Memo would lead to a resurgence of the marijuana black market and fewer financial institutions being willing to provide services to marijuana-industry businesses, causing them to go back to the dangerous cash-only business many Colorado businesses operated on until recently.

“The Cole Memo and FinCEN guidance strike a reasonable balance between allowing the states to enact reasonable regulations and the federal government’s interest in controlling some of the collateral consequences of legalization,” the governors wrote at the time.

Representatives from the Office of National Drug Control Policy recently were in Colorado to discuss Colorado’s legal marijuana market.

Sessions wrote in his letter, which is dated July 24, that he appreciated the meeting, but then re-read the letter Hickenlooper had sent him in April, in which Hickenlooper and the other governors wrote about their states’ “robust” market structures that prioritized public health and safety in line with the Cole Memo.

Sessions noted in his reply that the Cole Memo “does not alter in any way the [Justice] Department’s authority to enforce federal law, including federal laws relating to marijuana.”

Sessions also cited a federally-funded 2016 report by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area that focused on the impact of legal marijuana in crime, traffic crashes and health issues—a report that some marijuana proponents have criticized.

Sessions pointed out that the report found increased marijuana seizures and some increase in health-related issues related to marijuana, though he cited only findings that showed a negative correlation between marijuana use and certain incidents.

“These findings are relevant to the policy debate concerning marijuana legalization,” Sessions wrote.

He asked Hickenlooper to “please advise as to how Colorado plans to address the serious findings in the Rocky Mountain HIDTA report,” and said he was “open to suggestions.”

But the Associated Press reported Friday, citing documents obtained from the federal Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, that the task force recommends that the Justice Department create “centralized guidance, tools and data related to marijuana enforcement,” and to “evaluate whether to maintain, revise or rescind” the Cole Memo.

Mason Tvert, who ran the state campaign to legalize recreational marijuana, told the AP: “There’s as much evidence that Sessions intends to maintain the system and help improve upon it as there is that he intends to roll it back.”

Hickenlooper, meanwhile, was taking Sessions’ letter seriously, according to one of his spokespersons: “We welcome the opportunity to work with the Attorney General and arrive at the most effective approach to the states and the federal government working together to protect public health, public safety and other law enforcement interests. We take the concerns shared in the letter seriously and will provide a comprehensive response.”

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