Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper responded to Attorney General Jeff Sessions' July 24 letter questioning the state's marijuana regulatory regime in a five-page missive outlining the state's comprehensive regulatory and enforcement system. (Denver Post)

Colorado gov responds to Sessions marijuana letter questioning state’s regulatory regime

Colorado’s marijuana regulatory system is a model for other states, and the fledgling program could become even more robust with the federal government’s support, the state’s governor and top law enforcement officer said in a letter sent Thursday to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

In a five-page missive obtained by The Cannabist, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman responded to Sessions’ July 24 letter that raised “serious questions” about the state’s ability to regulate legal marijuana and prevent illegal activities.

Related: In Colorado’s words: How the state is prioritizing marijuana issues

“The State of Colorado has worked diligently to implement the will of our citizens and build a comprehensive regulatory and enforcement system that prioritizes public safety and public health,” Hickenlooper and Coffman wrote. “When abuses and unintended consequences materialize, the state has acted quickly to address any resulting harms.

“While our system has proven to be effective, we are constantly evaluating and seeking to strengthen our approach to regulation and enforcement.”

Sessions sent letters to the governors of Colorado, Alaska, Oregon and Washington — the first four states to legalize the recreational use of marijuana — in response to a joint letter the four sent Sessions and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin in early April.

In that initial correspondence, the governors implored the Justice and Treasury department to maintain existing marijuana enforcement guidelines, adding that an overhaul of the Cole Memo “is sure to produce unintended and harmful consequences.” Likewise, they said scrapping the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network guidance would chill the ability for banks to serve marijuana-related businesses.

Sessions countered in letters to each of the four states that their respective regulatory systems were not effective in enforcing Cole Memo priorities such as keeping marijuana out of the hands of minors, preventing drugged driving, and stopping marijuana from flowing over state borders.

Hickenlooper was the last of the four governors to pen a response to Sessions; however, the letter from the state that served as a trailblazer of recreational cannabis was the most comprehensive.

Between repeated calls for federal partnership, Hickenlooper and Coffman detailed scores of data and examples of how the state responded in four public health and safety priorities: out-of-state diversion, underage use, motor vehicle crash fatalities, and emergency department visits.

Working in concert with the feds — a partnership Hickenlooper and Coffman said would bolster the state’s regulatory efforts — should include providing marijuana businesses access to the federal banking system, and aligning data collection systems, the two noted.

“Colorado’s system has become a model for other states and nations,” they wrote. “Our agencies have consulted with countless jurisdictions around the world as they work to construct a comprehensive and effective regulatory framework.

“We stand ready to work with our federal partners to fortify what we have built. We are confident that if we work together, we can maintain a responsible regulatory and enforcement model that protects public safety, public health and other law enforcement interests.”

Requests for comment from Hickenlooper and the Department of Justice were not immediately returned.

Sessions has taken a hard-line stance against state-level marijuana legalization efforts since his appointment as attorney general. His bellicose language has generated concern among legalization advocates that the Trump Administration might abandon the hands-off approach of the previous administration and increase enforcement actions of federal marijuana laws.

The Department of Justice Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, created earlier this year, was expected to review existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing and marijuana. Sessions received the recommendations from the task force, some on a rolling basis, and plans to announce policy changes “when appropriate,” Justice Department officials have told The Cannabist.

The Associated Press reported earlier this month that the task force had no new policy recommendations related to marijuana, instead recommending that officials continue to review the Cole Memo and other existing policies.

Legal marijuana states respond

Within the past 10 days, the governors of the first four recreational marijuana states sent responses to Sessions’ July 24 letters outlining concerns about each state’s program.

Alaska replied first.

Gov. Bill Walker and Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth, in a letter dated Aug. 14, said that the 2015 data cited by Sessions “cannot be fairly attributed” to Alaska’s marijuana industry, since sales began there in 2016.

“The report simply does not speak to the success or failure of the new regulatory framework,” they wrote.

The Alaska leaders also noted that youth use rates in their state are below the national average and declining; the state continues to enforce and prosecute illegal marijuana crimes; and that the regulatory framework’s seed-to-sale tracking program, age and advertising restrictions, and education efforts bolster federal interests of culling diversion and protecting public health and safety.

Washington was next to address Sessions.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s Aug. 15 response pushed back on Sessions’ citation of data from the March 2016 Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (NW HIDTA) report on marijuana. They also repeatedly requested an in-person meeting with the attorney general.

That report “makes a number of allegations that are outdated, incorrect or based on incomplete information,” Inslee and Ferguson wrote. “If we can engage in a more direct dialogue, we might avoid this sort of miscommunication and make progress on the issues that are important to both of us.”

The pair also argued that Sessions conflated legal and illegal marijuana activity, resulting in the implication that state-legal marijuana was responsible for harms caused by illegal activity.

Inslee and Ferguson concluded:

Finally, we encourage you to keep in mind why we are having this conversation. State and federal prohibition of marijuana failed to prevent its widespread use, which was generating huge profits for violent criminal organizations. The people of Washington State chose by popular vote to try a different path.

Under Washington’s system, responsible adults are allowed access to a highly regulated product that returns substantial tax revenues to the government even as it displaces illegal activity. As we implement this system, we will continue striving to deter youth consumption, promote public safety, and fight interstate diversion.

Our state’s government and law enforcement are committed to the goals you have articulated, and to good faith cooperation and coordination with the Department of Justice as we work to serve the public and defend the will of the people.

Oregon was the third to respond to the attorney general.

Earlier this week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Oregon State Police Superintendent Travis Hampton said that the data Sessions used to draw his conclusions came from a report that was inaccurate.

In her letter dated August 22, posted on the state’s website, Brown noted, “The Oregon State Police determined that the draft report required significant additional work and revision, because the data was inaccurate and the heavily extrapolated conclusions were incorrect.”

This story is developing and will be updated.

Read the letter from Hickenlooper and Coffman to Sessions