WASHINGTON — The Justice Department would interfere with Colorado’s efforts to legalize marijuana if the state fails to effectively regulate the new industry, a top Obama administration official told Congress on Tuesday.
New guidelines issued by the nation’s top law enforcement agency on Aug. 29 detailed future priorities for the federal government to enforce marijuana laws, and effectively gave Colorado and Washington state the green light to move forward with its recently passed laws allowing recreational use.
It was the author of those guidelines, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who told the Senate Judiciary Committee that it would not challenge the Colorado law, but would counter it with new federal regulations if the experiment fails.
“We certainly put the governors of Colorado and Washington on notice, we expect them to have robust systems,” Cole said.
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 and other prohibitions makes it a federal crime to possess, grow, or distribute marijuana or maintain a place of business for any of these purposes.
However, Cole said the federal government would focus its enforcement efforts in Colorado on preventing the sale of marijuana to minors, profits from the sales going to gangs, drug cartels or other criminal enterprises, and would prosecute the trafficking of marijuana to other states where its use remains illegal.
Federal authorities would continue to focus efforts on preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana and prosecute those who drive while under the influence of the drug.
Most offensive to federal law enforcement, Cole said, would be the act of growing marijuana on public lands because it would damage the environment, and those who possess or use the drug on federal property could also be prosecuted.
Asked by lawmakers if the government was abdicating its responsibility to enforce federal marijuana laws, Cole said law enforcement will “aggressively enforce” those new priorities in every state, not just Colorado and Washington.
“We’re not giving immunity, not giving a free pass, not abdicating,” Cole said.
Jack Finlaw, chief legal counsel to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, praised the new federal guidelines and said it clarifies how the state can more forward with legalization efforts.
Although the governor and many state leaders opposed the ballot initiative, Finlaw said, they take seriously the state’s responsibility to regulate the industry that began this week when the state’s Revenue Department issued 140 pages of new rules.
“We will have a very robust regime,” Finlaw said.
However, Finlaw conceded that state officials are struggling with efforts to create new regulations to restrict advertising methods so that the sale of marijuana does not appeal to minors.
“We intend to counter any ads with strong and effective public service programming towards young people,” Finlaw said. “For adolescents, marijuana is a danger and we intend to educate them.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, criticized Colorado’s new law and said Congress did not classify marijuana as an illegal substance “on a whim.”
“It’s based on what science tell us about this dangerous and addictive drug,” Grassley said.
The Colorado and Washington laws contradict federal laws as well as the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs treaty signed by 180 nations that requires the U.S. to limit the distribution of marijuana for medical or scientific use only, the lawmaker said.
“Prosecutorial discretion is one thing, but giving the green light to an entire industry predicated on breaking federal law is another,” Grassley said.
“These policies are another example of the administration ignoring laws that it views as inconvenient, or that it just doesn’t like — immigration law, Obamacare deadlines — the list is long, and it hardly needs repeating,” Grassley said.
Grassley also criticized Colorado’s initial efforts to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, blaming it for an increase in driving fatalities involving marijuana and an increase in drug-related school suspensions for drug use.
He predicted that legalizing small amounts for recreational purposes would increase use among youngsters and trafficking of the substance to states where it is illegal.
“Some experts fear they will create a Big Marijuana industry, including a Starbucks of marijuana that will damage public health. And it seems unlikely that we’ll be able to confine that industry’s effects to adults, and those within Colorado and Washington,” Grassley said.
Finlaw blamed past failures on the state’s ability to control the use of medical marijuana on a lack of funds to hire staff and enforce rules, and pinned the state’s hopes for a more regulated recreational industry on the passage of a tax initiative on the ballot this fall.
Proposition AA asks voters to impose a 15 percent tax on marijuana — with the bulk of that money going to school construction — and a 10 percent tax on paraphernalia to help pay for enforcement and regulation.
“Governor Hickenlooper strongly supports passage of this marijuana tax measure to ensure the state has the financial resources for a robust regulatory and enforcement regime, for an effective education and prevention program to protect our youth from the harmful effects of marijuana, and for the health and public safety costs associated with the retail marijuana industry,” Finlaw said.
Dr. Kevin Sabet, director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida, was skeptical that public service announcements or other methods to keep the drug away from young adults would be successful.
“My worry is, American style legalization is commercialization,” Sabet said. “Why would we open the floodgates and hope for the best?”