Fears of a federal Justice Department-led crackdown on America’s burgeoning legal marijuana industry—based entirely on anti-cannabis statements, recent and age-old, made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other Trump administration figures—have so far been unfounded.
So far, Sessions has been unable to convince Congress to give him license to go after legal marijuana—and so far, federal drug cops have yet to enlist a willing accomplice in local government or law enforcement in a legal state. Without help from local cops on the ground, a crackdown won’t go very far.
But the feds may have found some collaborators in Colorado Springs.
On Wednesday, federal law enforcement officers—including representatives from the DEA and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the White House-level agency that’s under a constitutional mandate to oppose marijuana legalization—met with local police and elected officials in the city, a highly conservative area famous for its strong connections to the American military.
The meeting was not open to the public and only became public knowledge after someone with knowledge of the tête-à-tête advised a local television station, which buttonholed Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers on his way out of the “secret” summit.
According to Suthers, a former federal prosecutor who has been a staunch opponent of marijuana legalization and Colorado’s $1.3 billion a year in legal cannabis sales (and who was briefly on a short list to become the next leader of the FBI), the purpose and focus of the meeting was marijuana.
“I think they’re in Colorado to find out what law enforcement and other regulatory agencies’ view is toward marijuana regulation in Colorado,” Suthers told CBS affiliate KKTV, one of the first outlets to report on the meeting. “They’re [local law enforcement] talking about what they’re finding in houses, what they’re finding and who is doing it, and where these people are coming from.”
Suthers also let it slip that the same anti-drug delegation met with representatives from the office of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper earlier in the week.
Unlike Suthers, Hickenlooper—who opposed marijuana legalization in 2012—has at least verbally defended his state’s cannabis industry. According to a spokeswoman, Hickenlooper did not attend the meeting.
Federal agencies have yet to comment on the meetings. Request for comment from the Colorado Springs Gazette were not returned.
Later in the day, feds also met with local “medical and education officials” to learn about “the impacts of cannabis in our city,” a city spokeswoman told the Gazette.
If representatives from Sessions’s office and other marijuana foes have met with officials in other legal states, those meetings have yet to be disclosed. Either way, the Colorado meetings are one of the most troubling signals yet for a cannabis industry already on edge.
If the feds are looking for a collaborator, Suthers is a prime candidate. Suthers hates cannabis legalization, has repeatedly said that over-the-counter sales are a bad fit for his city—and he’s already giving the feds what intelligence he can.
Suthers told KKTV that he told agents about Colorado’s “huge” black market for cannabis—which has already been a focus of DEA investigations, raids and subsequent prosecutions.
If the black market was all that was discussed, that shouldn’t concern cannabis businesses—but it also strains credulity to think that was the extent of the conversation.
Having a local partner is necessary for the logistics of a crackdown, but it’s also vital for the crackdown to have a purpose. If local government and law enforcement allege, even wrongly, that a cannabis operation is in violation of local law, it would give the feds an in.
Both the choice of whom the feds chose to meet with—legalization opponents, all of them—and the meetings’ “secret nature” have jittery marijuana advocates back on high alert.
“It’s giving them the in to come after the industry—that’s the fear,” said Jason Warf, executive director of the Southern Colorado Cannabis Council, a marijuana advocacy group, in comments to the Gazette.
“This is extremely concerning for us as an organization, but more so for the cannabis businesses, as well as the patients and caregivers that we represent,” he added in a statement to KKTV. “If someone or a business is in conflict with current Colorado law, that is a matter that should be taken up in state court, not federal court. Our state statutes are more than sufficient to prosecute individuals in conflict with the law, without federal assistance.”
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