Sessions raises “serious questions” about Colorado’s marijuana management in letter to gov

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is questioning the efficacy of marijuana regulatory structures in Colorado in a letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper obtained by The Cannabist.

The letter dated July 24 arrived at the Colorado Capitol late Thursday, officials said. In it, Sessions cited data from a September 2016 report by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), a federally funded agency operated out of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. The report claimed increases in highway patrol seizures, youth use, traffic deaths and emergency department visits since Colorado legalized adult-use sales of cannabis in 2014, according to the letter.

Closing out the letter, Sessions wrote:

“These findings are relevant to the policy debate concerning marijuana legalization. I appreciate your offer to engage in a continuing dialogue on this important issue. To that end, 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. I also am open to suggestions on marijuana policy and related matters as we work to carry out our duties to effectively and faithfully execute the laws of the United States.”

The letter’s structure and message were nearly identical to that of a separate letter Sessions sent to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a correspondence that the Huffington Post obtained and reported late Thursday evening.

Notable passages in both letters highlight where Sessions sees flexibility for federal enforcement actions under the 2013 Cole Memorandum — Obama-era guidance for how prosecutors and law enforcement could prioritize their marijuana-related enforcement efforts.

The 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.”

“The Department remains committed to enforcing the Controlled Substances Act in a manner that efficiently applies our resources to address the most significant threats to public health and safety,” Sessions wrote in his response. “I look forward to working with you on these issues.”

It’s unclear whether Alaska and Oregon received similar correspondence. Inquiries from The Cannabist to the governors’ offices in those states were not immediately returned.

The correspondence with Colorado officials is part of an ongoing discussion between states that have legalized marijuana and the Justice Department, which is reviewing existing policies such as the Cole Memo.

When Hickenlooper met with Sessions in Washington, D.C., in late April, the governor explained the state’s regulatory structure, and how officials are tracking data related to public health and safety concerns. Likewise, Hickenlooper outlined how state marijuana tax revenue is supporting enforcement efforts against illegal activity.

At that time, Hickenlooper told The Cannabist that a federal crackdown on state-allowed marijuana systems seemed unlikely.

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 of charts, data and information about marijuana regulation and how the state is addressing public health, safety and law enforcement concerns, according to presentation materials provided by Hickenlooper’s office in response to a public records request made last week by The Cannabist.

The Huffington Post’s report on Thursday included a PDF document of the 140 pages of presentation materials delivered at the Colorado meeting.

Sessions’ latest letter is a continuation of the dialogue between Colorado and federal officials, Mark Bolton, marijuana adviser to Hickenlooper said, referencing the April meeting between the governor and Sessions and the subsequent July 18 meeting.

“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,” Bolton told The Cannabist.

As to whether Sessions is hinting at any coming federal enforcement actions on marijuana in this new letter, Bolton said, “We don’t take it that way.”

Colorado officials are taking the issues raised in the letter “very seriously,” he said, adding that state officials share the attorney general’s concerns.

“We take (this letter) as an opportunity to continue the conversation that we’ve worked on for the past several months,” Bolton said.

Colorado officials are preparing a response, which will include a comprehensive review of the relevant data, Bolton said.

The Department of Justice Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, created earlier this year, was expected to review existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing and marijuana. As of last week, Sessions received the recommendations from the task force, some on a rolling basis, and plans to announce policy changes “when appropriate,” Justice Department officials have told The Cannabist.

This story is developing and will be updated.

Read the letter from Sessions to Hickenlooper

Sessions Hickenlooper July 24 2017 Letter (PDF)

Sessions Hickenlooper July 24 2017 Letter (Text)

View the presentation from the July 18 meeting between Colorado state regulatory officials and federal agents.

Colorado Presentation Marijuana Health (PDF)

Colorado Presentation Marijuana Health (Text)

The Cannabist

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