WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration's decision not to challenge Colorado's recreational-marijuana law doesn't mean the state has escaped federal scrutiny entirely, a Justice Department official said Tuesday.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole told the Senate Judiciary Committee the administration is monitoring how Colorado and Washington -- the only two states to legalize recreational marijuana use -- implement their laws.
He said the administration wants the two states to develop "robust" laws and regulations, but acknowledged under questioning by the panel's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., that the Justice Department itself has yet to work out all the details associated with the hands-off policy announced Aug. 29.
For instance, the administration is working on guidance for banks that refuse to lend to marijuana businesses for fear of federal prosecution. Also unclear are the benchmarks the Justice Department will use to determine when to challenge a state in the future. Cole would only say that such matters would be decided on a case-by-case basis.
Cole said the Obama administration trusts Colorado will put in place strong rules and regulations, but Uncle Sam still plans to verify that those measures square with eight federal law-enforcement priorities. Those include preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors, blocking sales that help or act as cover for trafficking operations, and preventing pot exports to states where the drug is illegal.
Growing, distributing, possessing and using marijuana is illegal under federal law. For months it was unclear if the Justice Department would try to overturn the new recreational-use law, which Colorado voters approved via a ballot measure in November despite opposition from Gov. John Hickenlooper and state Attorney General John Suthers.
Last month, the Justice Department said it won't go after individual users in 21 states and the District of Columbia that allow marijuana use for recreational or medicinal purposes, or try to overturn those laws.
That doesn't mean federal oversight is a thing of the past, said Cole, who wrote the memorandum spelling out the new policy.
"We are not giving immunity, we are not giving a free pass, we are not abdicating our responsibilities," he said. "When we see somebody who is marketing marijuana in a way that's going to be attractive to minors, we're going to go after them. When we see somebody who's . . . involved in drug cartels and illegal enterprises we're going to go after them."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, accused the Justice Department of selective enforcement, saying the agency aggressively pursues states that adopt voter ID requirements but ignores those that violate the federal marijuana ban.
Grassley said Colorado saw a raft of marijuana-related problems in recent years, before the recreational-use law was passed. For instance, he said, there was a 114 percent rise in drugged driving from 2006 to 2011 and a spike in the number of drug-related expulsions in state schools.
Colorado is also a major marijuana exporter to other states like his where it's illegal, he said. In 2010, 10 percent of all the pot seized in Iowa came from Colorado. Last year, that figure rose to 36 percent, according to Grassley.
"This is all before full legalization in Colorado. What do you think this number will be next year? Is the federal government prepared to pay for the law enforcement costs it is imposing on states like Iowa because it refuses to enforce federal law?" Grassley asked.
He also was skeptical that Colorado could develop a strong enough regulatory and enforcement system to comply with the federal law-enforcement priorities, though Jack Finlaw, Hickenlooper's chief counsel, testified that the state supports the eight principles and plans to fully comply with them.
Grassley also referred to a June audit showing the state of Colorado doesn't adequately regulate doctors who prescribe medical marijuana. Finlaw conceded that point, but explained that the state lacks the money to hire enough staff to do the job.
After the hearing, Finlaw said he's confident a ballot measure this November seeking voter approval for a marijuana tax would pass. That new source of revenue, Finlaw said, would generate the money needed for the state to hire the personnel necessary to implement the recreational-use law.
(KUSA-TV © 2013 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)