White House spokesman fuels fears in Colorado of crackdown on recreational marijuana

February 23, 2017 Updated: February 24, 2017 at 6:24 am
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White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks during a daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Local and state marijuana advocates condemned the possibility of a federal crackdown on recreational marijuana in Colorado, saying increased enforcement would infringe upon states’ rights and threaten a heavily-regulated industry that has replaced a black market.

During a news conference Thursday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer offered the Trump administration’s strongest indication to date of a looming crackdown on the drug, despite polls showing nearly six out of 10 Americans favor legalization.

“The federal government is supposed to have limited power, and we believe this would be a huge overstep of that power,” said Jason Warf, executive director of the Southern Colorado Cannabis Council.

Responding to a question about federal marijuana law, Spicer said, “I do believe you’ll see greater enforcement of it.” President Donald Trump does not oppose medical marijuana, he added, but “that’s very different than recreational use, which is something the Department of Justice will be further looking into.” Spicer offered no details on what form the enforcement would take.

A renewed focus on recreational marijuana in states that have legalized it would present a departure from the Trump administration’s statements in favor of states’ rights. A day earlier, the administration announced that the issue of transgender student bathroom access was best left to states and local communities to decide.

Enforcement would also shift away from marijuana policy under the Obama administration, which said in a 2013 memo that it would not intervene in states’ marijuana laws as long as they keep the drug from crossing state lines and away from children and drug cartels.

But the memo carried no force of law and could be rewritten by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has consistently said he opposes legalizing marijuana, but has not indicated what he might do.

Jeffrey Dorschner, a spokesman for Colorado’s Acting U.S. Attorney Robert Troyer, said Troyer’s office would follow any new protocols related to recreational marijuana issued by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“It sounds like there may be either new or amended guidance coming from the department,” Dorschner said. “If and when that happens, we’ll adjust accordingly.”

In addition to Colorado, seven other states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

The Justice Department has several options available should it decide to enforce the law, including filing lawsuits on the grounds that state laws regulating pot are unconstitutional because they are preempted by federal law. Enforcement could also be as simple as directing U.S. attorneys to send letters to recreational marijuana businesses letting them know they are breaking the law.

Cliff Black, a Colorado Springs attorney who represents several marijuana businesses, doubts that a federal crackdown would be effective or even feasible.

“It would be a huge mistake for the federal government to go after a regulated market,” Black said. “All they would be doing is helping out the illegal cartels.”

He added that increased enforcement of federal marijuana laws would only add to the Trump administration’s already lengthy to-do list, which includes cutting down on crime and tightening immigration laws.

“I just don’t know where they’re going to come up with the federal resources to go after recreational marijuana,” he said.

The Marijuana Industry Group, which includes hundreds of cannabis businesses across the state, also issued a statement supporting the state’s cannabis industry in response to Spicer’s comments.

“The Colorado cannabis programs are heavily regulated, heavily taxed, and heavily enforced by state and local governments,” the group’s executive director, Kristi Kelly, said in a statement. “Resources are better spent pursuing illegal cartels than state- and locally-licensed, tax-paying business operators.”

In 2016, the industry generated more than $1.3 billion in sales and created more than 20,000 jobs, the group said.

Spicer’s comments came the same day as a Quinnipiac poll said 59 percent of Americans think marijuana should be legal and 71 percent would oppose a federal crackdown.

“It’s an industry that’s inevitably going to make progress, so I really don’t see the point of fighting it,” said Ambur Racek, owner of Colorado Springs cannabis club Studio A-64.

Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, who has praised the industry for the tax revenues it has generated for the community, said in a statement that the legality of recreational marijuana should be left up to the states.

“College scholarships, parks funding, impact studies, jailhouse improvements, veteran sponsorships, addiction treatment, homeless programming and school drug prevention programs have all been made possible here because of legalization,” he said. “We know the rest of America agrees, let states decide for themselves.”

Jim Parco, a spokesman for marijuana industry advocacy organization Grow Pueblo’s Future, acknowledged that Spicer’s statements added to the anxiety of those in the recreational marijuana business, but emphasized that his comments did not change Colorado law or the regulatory framework the state has created for the industry.

“At this point, I think we need to understand the context. This was a Q and A in a press conference and not necessarily a policy statement by the administration,” Parco said. “We don’t react to comments. We react to policy changes.”

Annie Skinner, a spokeswoman for the office of Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, echoed Parco, saying it’s too early to tell how the Trump administration will handle legal recreational marijuana.

“Today’s comments by the White House press secretary were so general in nature that it’s impossible to discern what action the administration actually will take on legalized recreational marijuana,” Skinner said. “Until the Department of Justice issues an official position, we won’t be able to chart a legal course of action for Colorado.”
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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