Senate Democrats appear to be on board with the Justice Department’s new, more lenient marijuana prosecution policies, adopted after legalization votes in Colorado and Washington.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole was called before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday to explain the DOJ’s new federal drug enforcement policies in states where the recreational use of marijuana is now legal.
Despite federal law classifying marijuana as a controlled substance, on August 29 the Justice Department advised that it would not “at this time” seek to push back against laws allowing its recreational use.
“The department has not historically devoted our finite resources to prosecute individuals whose actions are limited to the possession or use of small amounts of marijuana on private property,” Cole said.
But he explained that the government would still actively pursue and shut down certain types of marijuana-related activity in Colorado and Washington, including the distribution of marijuana to minors and any involvement in criminal enterprises.
“Outside of these enforcement priorities, however, the department will continue to rely on state and local law enforcement to address marijuana activities in accordance with their state and local drug laws,” Cole said.
Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, welcomed the deputy’s remarks.
“We need to have a smarter approach to marijuana policy,” he said, “and that can only be achieved with closer cooperation and mutual respect between the federal government and the states.” His comments were echoed by Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, both Democrats.
But Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the lone Republican attending the hearing, expressed his belief that the Justice Department is “not faithfully discharging its duties.”
“Prosecutorial discretion is one thing,” he said, “but giving a green light to an entire industry predicated on breaking federal law is quite another.”
Grassley was particularly concerned about the movement of marijuana from states where the drug is legal to other parts of the nation.
“In 2010, Colorado was the source of 10 percent of all marijuana interdiction in Iowa,” he said. “Twenty-five percent in 2011, 36 percent in 2012. All before full-scale legalization in Colorado.”
“What do you think the number will be next year?” he asked.
Grassley asked the DOJ to develop a group of “metrics” that could inform the department’s response to various marijuana activities in the states, a suggestion greeted with enthusiasm by the Democratic senators on the panel.
Senators also asked Cole to look into helping facilitate laws that allow banks and other financial institutions to work with marijuana businesses. Many marijuana stores are only able to deal in cash, increasing the chances of robberies and money laundering.
The panel also heard from officials from Colorado and Washington. Jack Finlaw, chief legal counsel to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, told the senators that his state “looks forward to working with the federal government.”
“I think that you’ll discover that not only will Colorado regulators and law enforcement want to partner with federal law enforcement, but the industry will as well,” he said.
“One of the things I’ve discovered is how entrepreneurial and how much integrity the folks in our state that are developing these new [marijuana] businesses have,” he continued.
John Urquhart, the sheriff of Washington’s King County, told the panel that his 35 years as a cop convinced him that ” the War on Drugs has been a failure.”
“Legalizing and regulating the possession and sale of marijuana, is it a better alternative?” he asked. “I think it is, and I’m willing to be proved wrong. But the only way we will know is if we are allowed to try.”
“The new DOJ decision provides clarity,” he continued. “It’s a great step, but more needs to be done.”
He also pushed back against arguments that Washington police were turning a blind eye to smoking in public and selling marijuana to minors, both of which are still prohibited by state law.
“What we have in Washington is not the wild, wild west,” he said. “As sheriff, I’m committed to further collaboration with the DEA, FBI, and DOJ.”
“My message to my deputies will be very clear: You will enforce our new marijuana laws,” he concluded.
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