Colorado voters decided in November 2012 that our state constitution should protect legalized retail marijuana. A little more than five years later, I suspect that if we were to put that issue to a vote again, it would pass by even higher numbers. For better or worse, legalized marijuana has become more accepted around the country, with 29 states and the District now having some form of cannabis legalization.
That is why it was surprising to wake up last week to the news that the Justice Department, without advance notice, rescinded the nationwide guidance regarding marijuana enforcement. By rolling back this guidance, including the Cole Memorandum, the Justice Department has left the decision-making up to the 93 U.S. attorneys, creating substantial uncertainty in how the law will be applied from state to state.
Frankly, it is too late for the federal government to step in and dismantle this burgeoning industry.
Despite the decision, I still believe that priorities laid out in the Cole memo are critically important. Those include preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors, preventing criminal enterprises and cartels from using our state’s laws as a cover or pretext for illegal activity and focusing on preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public-health consequences. Those priorities cannot get lost in a political shuffle, and they will continue to be the focus of our efforts in Colorado.
Coloradans would be the first to admit that being a trailblazer in this area has not always been easy. There have been bumps in the road, and there is still work to be done. But our state has taken thoughtful steps to build a comprehensive regulatory and enforcement system that prioritizes public safety and public health. We have served as a model for other states that have also legalized cannabis.
I did not support the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado, and as the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in our state, I have certainly seen the downside to its establishment. But I recognize that it is the responsibility of elected officials to put aside personal feelings and implement the will of citizens to the best of their abilities.
I absolutely respect that citizens in other states have chosen not to legalize marijuana, which is certainly their prerogative. But in Colorado, we remain committed to improving the laws and regulations governing marijuana businesses.
For example, I have joined many fellow attorneys general from states around the country in encouraging Congress to take necessary action to bring marijuana businesses out of the financial shadows and allow them access to banking services. Right now, federal law forces these businesses to run cash-only operations, which impedes the ability of law enforcement and regulatory authorities to monitor the financial transactions of this multibillion-dollar industry. This creates a public safety threat, as cash-only businesses are targeted for robbery and other crimes. It also creates additional challenges for regulators and taxing authorities trying to determine what taxes are owed to state and local governments.
In the meantime, I hope the federal government does not try to target lawful marijuana retailers in my state. If they do, I will follow my charge as attorney general to defend Colorado’s laws. For now, Colorado will continue to operate business as usual.