No fear for pot users who follow state law

Pot users in Colorado needn’t fear action against them by federal officials so long as they stay within the limits of state law.

Sales to minors, trafficking marijuana to other states, violence, cartels and growing marijuana on public lands will remain a focus to federal law enforcement, however, the U.S. Department of Justice said Thursday.

The announcement, Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said, “shows the federal government is respecting the will of Colorado voters.”

The decision, said Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican, “is very much along the lines I anticipated and I remain mystified as to why it took so long to articulate it.”

Voters in Colorado and Washington state last year legalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults.

Marijuana, however, remains a controlled substance, meaning it’s illegal to possess it under federal law.

Clarification of the federal position, however, “is nevertheless welcome,” Suthers said.

Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said the tension between federal and state law highlights the need for Congress to tackle the question of whether marijuana ought to be banned.

“I am also increasingly convinced the cow is out of the barn on this issue (certainly in Colorado and Washington but really most everywhere),” Hautzinger said in an email. “The time has come for Congress to take the issue on directly and have a debate over whether the federal government still wants to make marijuana illegal.”

If so, the Justice Department should enforce the law fully in all 50 states, Hautzinger said. “If the will of Congress is no, then we need to move on, regulate it, tax it and deal with it on a national level.”

Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey and Grand Junction Police Chief John Camper said there were no surprises in the federal position, but each noted that questions about state enforcement of the law persist.

“It remains to be seen how ‘strong and effective’ our state’s marijuana regulatory system will be,” Camper said.

John F. Walsh, U.S. attorney for Colorado, noted that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder emphasized “the central importance of strong and effective state marijuana regulatory systems” and said his office would work with federal, state and local agencies.

“I’m not inspired that the state is anywhere near robust currently,” Hilkey said, adding that “considering Colorado moved forward without regard for the federal position on (marijuana) in the first place, is there anyone that believes that the state will begin to worry about what the feds think now?”

State officials will work to keep marijuana businesses from being fronts for criminal enterprises or other illegal activity, Hickenlooper said, “and we are committed to preventing the exportation of marijuana out of Colorado while also enhancing efforts to keep state roads safer from impaired drivers.”

The Justice Department outlined eight areas in which it would take an active enforcement role:

■ Preventing distribution to minors;

■ Preventing money from marijuana sales to go to criminal enterprises;

■ Preventing exportation of marijuana from Colorado or Washington to other states in which marijuana remains illegal;

■  Preventing legal marijuana activity from being used to cover for the trafficking of other illegal drugs;

■  Preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana;

■  Preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;

■  Preventing the growing of marijuana “and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands;”

■  And preventing marijuana possession and use on public property.

Reporters Charles Ashby and Paul Shockley contributed to this story.


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