Gov. Hickenlooper Discusses Recreational Marijuana and the Potential Increase in Federal Marijuana Enforcement


(From the 2017 Archives)

During a press conference last Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer found himself responding to a question about the Trump administration’s stand on marijuana. After expressing general support for medical marijuana, Spicer said there was “a big difference between that and recreational marijuana.” That statement has many recreational businesses and consumers concerned. But, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper doesn’t seem too worried.

In an appearance on Meet the Press earlier this week, Hickenlooper stated that it is never his choice to be in conflict with federal law, but he has some doubts that Spicer’s suggested increase in national enforcement will come to pass. According to the Governor, Colorado Senator Cory Gardner discussed marijuana regulations with Senator Jeff Sessions before his confirmation as Attorney General, and Sessions had implied federal marijuana enforcement wasn’t going to be a priority for the administration. Even if the administration does choose to increase enforcement, Governor Hickenlooper isn’t sure that they would be able to halt the green juggernaut Colorado and an increasing number of other states have built.

The Path to Increased Enforcement

Former U.S. Attorney for Colorado Troy Eid disagrees with Hickenlooper’s assessment that Colorado’s recreational industry is too large to be toppled. In an interview with NBC 9News, Eid argues that marijuana was never legal under the previous administration; agencies were simply directed not to spend federal dollars pursuing state-approved medical or recreational businesses and consumers. The Obama administration decided not to enforce laws that were already on the books, which is very different from passing new laws protecting the cannabis industry.

According to Eid, the current administration wouldn’t have to send agents to raid businesses or dispensaries if they wanted to damage or dismantle the recreational marijuana industry. Even a letter, he says, could be enough. If the federal government sent notifications to recreational states making it clear that they will no longer recognize state law, it would compel many businesses to close their doors to avoid federal felony charges. Eid believes states might try to file suit, but doubts their case would go very far given past rulings by both the Supreme Court and the Colorado Supreme Court.

Possible Responses to Increased Federal Marijuana Enforcement

In addition to being an issue of states’ rights, recreational cannabis is a billion-dollar industry that continues to gain national support, and the defense of recreational marijuana laws could see a variety of unlikely partners come together to resist federal changes.

According to an article in the LA Times, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) is planning on introducing legislation “that could blunt Spicer’s threat by preventing the Department of Justice from enforcing federal laws against the recreational use of marijuana in states that have legalized it.” Many state representatives are also rallying behind their constituents, taking steps to defend the laws citizens voted for. And, with the financial support of the cannabis industry and 59 percent of the population in support of national legalization (according to a poll from Quinnipiac University), that defense could eventually find its way to the Supreme Court.

At this point, it is simply too early to know exactly how the current administration will enforce federal laws, or how states and business owners will respond if changes are made to federal enforcement. One thing is certain: when we know more, we’ll let you know.

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