Coloradans reacted strongly Thursday to Attorney General Jeff Sessions' announcement that the federal Justice Department he heads is reversing its hands-off approach to legalized marijuana in a growing number of states.
Sessions rescinded the so-called Cole memo, the Barack Obama-era policy that paved the way for legalized marijuana to flourish in states where it was approved by voters. The memo, named for the then-deputy U.S. attorney general who issued it, James Cole, discouraged prosecutors from bringing federal marijuana charges unless it involved sales to children, gangs or out-of-state trafficking.
Colorado's top federal law enforcement officer, U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer, said the announcement wouldn't alter his office's approach to marijuana.
Troyer said his office "has already been guided by these principles in marijuana prosecutions" and will concentrate its efforts on identifying and prosecuting those "who create the greatest safety threats to our communities around the state."
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, who was U.S. attorney for Colorado in 2011 under President George W. Bush, and El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder praised Sessions' move.
"I applaud him for standing up and making a change," Elder said.
"I am not surprised that the attorney general is revisiting federal policy regarding state marijuana laws that exist in violation of federal law," Suthers said. "The Obama administration's deference to state marijuana laws and its non-enforcement of federal laws was justified largely on assurances that state laws would reduce the black market for the drug and decrease youth access to the drug."
Suthers said neither has occurred in Colorado, citing an "explosion" in black market activity and an increasing underage marijuana use that "undoubtedly caught the attention" of Sessions, he said.
A recent poll contradicted Suthers' claim that legalizing marijuana has led to increased underage marijuana use.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported in 2017 that about 9 percent of the state's 12- to 17-year-olds used marijuana monthly, the lowest rate since about a decade ago.
Gov. John Hickenlooper reacted to Sessions' announcement by saying Colorado is "expanding its efforts" to eliminate the black market and keep marijuana "out of the hands of minors and criminals."
Brian Vicente, the Denver lawyer who co-authored Amendment 64 - the voter-approved constitutional amendment that allowed marijuana to be sold for recreational use - doesn't think the change in the Justice Department's stance will affect Colorado or other states, such as Washington, Nevada and California, that have legalized it.
"The rescinding of the Cole memo does not indicate any specific changes in enforcement policy, and it remains to be seen whether it will have any significant impact on the (Justice) Department's actions," he said. "U.S. attorneys had vast prosecutorial discretion before and they will continue to have the same level of discretion."
Vicente said there is broad public support for legalization of marijuana - 64 percent favored in a Gallup poll late last year - and that should influence federal prosecutors' actions despite the new guidelines.
The Southern Colorado Cannabis Council, a medical marijuana advocacy group, was less certain that Sessions' tough stance on marijuana would not be adopted by federal prosecutors.
"I think the fear from our perspective is that, historically, federal prosecutors have not been a friend to the cannabis industry and movement," said spokesman Jason Warf. "Now, we're leaving prosecution up to their discretion. It opens a huge possibility there for a change in enforcement."
Several in the state's congressional delegation, including both U.S. senators on different sides of the aisle, lambasted Sessions and his disregard for states' rights.
Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner tweeted, "With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in (Colorado) and other states."
Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said, "In rescinding the Cole memo, the attorney general failed to listen to Colorado, and will create unnecessary chaos and confusion.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette said the move could "drag us back to the days" of raids on legal dispensaries and people "living in fear of being jailed for using the medical marijuana they need."
The policy reversal also could intimidate an industry that employs thousands of Coloradans and generates more than $1 billion in annual sales, said DeGette, who wrote bipartisan legislation to ensure that the federal government does not preempt state laws on marijuana.
Colorado Springs Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Andrew Freedman, Colorado's former "marijuana czar," said Sessions' shift on marijuana enforcement is meant to create chaos, but the Justice Department can't force states to make pot illegal.
The move creates uncertainty in the market, deterring people from getting into the business, Freedman said.
Freedman said this is a time for states that have legalized marijuana to increase enforcement to make sure their regulations are followed, but not to retreat.