The federal government finally provided clarity on Colorado's marijuana laws on Aug. 29, with the Department of Justice issuing guidance saying that prosecutors will not seek to block recreational pot use and sales here — so long as the newly created industry abides by state regulations.
However, the memo does spell out priority cases involving serious marijuana-related offenses that federal prosecutors will continue to investigate, regardless of state laws. And it maintains that possession, cultivation and distribution of the drug will remain a federal crime.
Still, the memo makes it clear that federal prosecutors won't be beating down doors of most recreational pot users in Colorado any time soon.
The clarity provided by Attorney General Eric Holder's office has been a long-time-coming for many around the state, who have sought guidance from the feds ever since Colorado voters passed Amendment 64 — the ballot measure that legalized recreational pot use and sales — last year.
"This is a good thing," said state Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge.
Jahn played an instrumental role in crafting regulations associated with Amendment 64 during this year's legislative session.
"It's not a matter of this being something that was statuatorial," she said. "This was citizen-driven and put into the (state) Constitution. How do you not respect that?"
The AG's Office memo reiterates that "the federal government has traditionally relied on states and local law enforcement agencies to address marijuana activity through enforcement of their own narcotics laws."
The memo also says that the federal government has left "lower-level or localized (marijuana) activity to state and local authorities (to deal with)."
But the guidance from the justice department makes it clear that federal prosecutors will continue to make marijuana enforcement determinations, depending on the seriousness of the case.
The department laid out eight "enforcement priorities" where the feds will continue to devote resources, "regardless of state law." They include cases where drug money goes to gangs or cartels and cases involving drug trafficking. The feds also make it clear that they do not want marijuana being distributed to minors.
The guidance memo says it's up to the states that legalize the drug to ensure that there are strong enforcement laws.
"The Department's guidance in this memorandum rests on its expectation that states and local governments that have enacted laws authorizing marijuana-related conduct will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that will address the threat those state laws could pose to public safety, public health and other law enforcement interests."
Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, who was the chairman of the legislative select committee that drafted Amendment 64 legislation this year, said that's exactly what the Legislature accomplished this session.
“We drafted the most robust marijuana regulations in the country because public safety is our top priority,” Pabon said through a statement. “The feds' action validates all our hard work to protect public safety, comply with the will of the people of Colorado and keep marijuana out of the hands of kids and criminals.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper also issued a statement, thanking the federal government for providing clarity on this issue.
“We recognize how difficult this issue has been for the Department of Justice and we appreciate the thoughtful approach it has taken," Hickenlooper said. "Amendment 64 put Colorado in conflict with federal law. Today's announcement shows the federal government is respecting the will of Colorado voters."
The state of Washington will join Colorado in allowing retail pot sales, beginning next year.