Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ surprising Jan. 4 repeal of the Cole memo that protected state-level marijuana laws sent shockwaves from coast to coast, as 30 states and the District of Columbia currently have legalized cannabis in some form. The first state to legalize recreational marijuana is refusing to chill and vowing to put up a fight.
Colorado elected officials have fired back at Jeff Sessions, according to Colorado Public Radio. Perhaps more significantly, the U.S. attorney in whose jurisdiction Colorado falls — and who would lead any enforcement against Colorado individuals or businesses — seems inclined to ignore Sessions’ guidance.
If you’re unfamiliar, Sessions guidance invalidates a 2013 Obama administration determined that the Department of Justice would not pursue legal cannabis businesses in medical and adult-use states. In rescinding the policy, Sessions wrote, “It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and the previous issuance of guidance undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission.”
Colorado lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been dismissive of Sessions attack on their rights.
"Thirty states comprising more than two-thirds of the American people have legalized marijuana in some form. The Cole memo got it right and was foundational in guiding states’ efforts to regulate the production and distribution of marijuana," Gov. John Hickenlooper said in a statement to Colorado Public Radio (CPR). "Colorado has created a comprehensive regulatory system committed to supporting the will of our voters. We constantly evaluate and seek to strengthen our approach to regulation and enforcement. Our focus will continue to be the public health and public safety of our citizens. We are expanding efforts to eliminate the black market and keep marijuana out of the hands of minors and criminals. Today’s decision does not alter the strength of our resolve in those areas, nor does it change my constitutional responsibilities."
Several other lawmakers have chimed in too. But none of them may be as important a voice as Colorado interim U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer, who would direct any Justice Department cannabis prosecutions in the state.
Troyer is not necessarily pro-pot, but also indicated he had no plans to change course. Troyer said in a statement that Sessions’ guidance “directed that federal marijuana prosecution decisions be governed by the same principles that have long governed all of our prosecution decisions. The United States Attorney’s Office in Colorado has already been guided by these principles in marijuana prosecutions.”
Other attorneys general were less guarded in their words. "Don't freak out,” Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman told CPR, asserting her office would federal government if they did prosecute legal Colorado businesses. "I think we'll have a strong argument should the federal government try to change the rules."
Several Colorado Republicans have spoken out against Sessions’ move, Sen. Cory Gardner chief among them.
“Before I voted to confirm Attorney General Sessions, he assured me that marijuana would not be a priority for this administration,” Gardner said in a statement. “Today’s action directly contradicts what I was told, and I am prepared to take all steps necessary, including holding (U.S. Department of Justice) nominees, until the attorney general lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation.”
On the House of Representatives side, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) released a statement defending Colorado’s right to voter-approved marijuana. "Attorney General Sessions needs to read the Commerce Clause found in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution that limits the power of the federal government to regulate interstate and not intrastate commerce,” his statement says. “The decision that was made to legalize marijuana in Colorado was made by the voters of Colorado and only applies within the boundaries of our state. Colorado had every right to legalize marijuana, and I will do everything I can to protect that right against the power of an overreaching federal government."
Unsurprisingly, Democrats also condemned Sessions’ decision and expressed worry over businesses that had invested so much in setting roots in Colorado. "The entire existence of the industry, all of the investors, the customers, the leases, the landlords, all of that is in the hands of a government bureaucrat in Washington," Rep. Jared Polis told CPR.
There appears to be a consensus among Colorado lawmakers to defend cannabis in their state. They seem to have the will to test Sessions to see if he’s just blowing smoke.