(Helen H. Richardson, Denver Post file)

Feds visit Colorado to research marijuana regulation, black market, enforcement

Colorado officials who oversee the state’s marijuana agencies are sharing details about a fact-finding visit earlier this week by federal law enforcement and drug policy administrators.

Related: Feds hold closed-doors meetings with Colorado officials known to have doubts about weed

Five representatives from the federal government met Tuesday morning in Denver with nearly two-dozen state officials for a 2-and-a-half-hour meeting about Colorado’s legal marijuana regime, said Mark Bolton, marijuana adviser to Gov. John Hickenlooper. The meeting preceded a similarly focused closed-door gathering on Wednesday between federal agents and government officials in Colorado Springs, according to KKTV 11 and the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Bolton told The Cannabist that Tuesday’s meeting resulted from Hickenlooper’s request to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April to visit Colorado to get a first-hand look at the state’s first-of-a-kind attempt to regulate and tax adult-use marijuana sales.

“Our purpose was to convey to them the strength of our regulatory system and our enforcement system and our policies and practices,” said Bolton, who was among the meeting’s attendees on Tuesday.

Those discussions spanned the comprehensive nature of the state system, efforts to cull gray and black market activity, and the establishment of youth prevention and adult education campaigns, Bolton said. The federal officials were especially interested in the state’s responses to unexpected issues as well as the public education campaigns, he added.

The federal officials did not broach the topic of any immediate or future federal enforcement activities against the industry, he said.

The federal agents present represented the deputy attorney general, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Domestic Policy Council and the State Department. Colorado officials included state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who had also invited Sessions to visit Colorado earlier this year, and representatives from agencies such as the Department of Revenue, Department of Public Health and Environment, Department of Public Safety, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Department of Regulatory Agencies, Bolton said.

Hickenlooper did not attend the meeting.

“I think (the federal officials) viewed this as an educational opportunity,” Bolton said.

Coffman, in a joint statement with Hickenlooper’s office, said they “were pleased” the federal government accepted their invitations to visit Colorado.

“The meeting focused on sharing Colorado’s experience creating and executing a robust and effective regulatory and enforcement system, and our continuing efforts to protect public health and public safety,” officials said in the statement. “Our conversation with the federal delegation was productive and we look forward to continued collaboration.”

Justice Department officials declined to comment.

The meetings came to light following a report Wednesday by KKTV 11 in Colorado Springs. Earlier in the day, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, the city’s police chief and local community members met in private with representatives from several federal agencies, according to the KKTV 11 report.

“A lot of it was around sensitive case investigations; that’s another reason why it couldn’t be public,” Suthers, the former state attorney general, told KKTV 11. “So without getting into that, I would tell you that probably most of the discussion centered around the huge black market that exists for marijuana in Colorado.”

Some industry members, however, balked at the closed-door nature of the meetings and the participation of individuals known to oppose legalization, including Suthers.

Jason Warf, executive director of the Southern Colorado Cannabis Council, told The Gazette that he feared the meetings would give federal enforcement officers “the in to come after the industry.”

The Denver-based Marijuana Industry Group called for future meetings to be more representative of the state’s cannabis industry.

“In our earliest conversations following Sessions’ appointment, we expressed a desire for open, fact-based dialogue,” Kristi Kelly, MIG executive director, told The Cannabist via email. “If these conversations in Colorado Springs (and Denver) represent initial steps in that process, we hope this spurs productive discussion around cannabis issues.

“Marijuana Industry Group has worked in responsible partnership with state and local officials over the years on a number of issues, from improvements in our regulatory system, to tackling impaired driving, youth prevention and safe consumption. When appropriate, we hope industry, the patient community, and other stakeholders are invited to participate in discussions as well.”

It was not immediately clear how or whether the discussions would factor into a report due to Sessions next week from a Justice Department task force convened to review policies in the areas of violent crime, immigration and drug trafficking.

The meetings come amid a potentially watershed period for marijuana in America. As a growing number of states have adopted medical or adult-use cannabis laws, dialogue has increased as to how the nation should approach, enforce, regulate and research something that remains a Schedule I illegal substance.

A spokesman for the governor’s office in Washington state, which followed Colorado in implementing a recreational cannabis program, said no similar meetings have taken place with federal officials. The press secretary for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown did not indicate whether federal agents visited to discuss marijuana policy but referenced a May meeting between state officials and U.S. Attorney Billy Williams regarding black market concerns.

Cannabist digital producer Aleta Labak contributed to this report.

Watch Hickenlooper’s full interview with Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press Daily” in April 2017: