September 23, 2019

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New Federal Enforcement Strategy Could Target Legal Colorado Dispensaries


Initially, legal marijuana was available in Colorado for medical purposes only and required a prescription.  Following a constitutional amendment in 2012, Colorado became the first state to allow marijuana to be used recreationally. Since then, seven other states have also voted to allow the use of recreational marijuana.

Legal marijuana dispensaries are now one of Colorado’s fastest growing industries. According to The Denver Post, a June 2017 study showed Colorado retail marijuana stores outnumbered Starbucks outlets in the state by nearly a hundred locations.

Although these dispensaries are legal under state law, business owners who use licensed marijuana businesses as a front for more profitable illegal drug trafficking have become the focus of a new enforcement strategy.

How are businesses in compliance with state law in danger?

The changes came about after the U.S. Attorney General’s office shifted its focus from preventing illegal marijuana production to preventing licensed businesses from conducting illegal drug trade. U.S. Attorney General Bob Troyer says that state legislation doesn’t affect his ability to prosecute businesses that are breaking federal law. This leaves marijuana business owners vulnerable to prosecution even in legal states such as Colorado.

“We make decisions based on safety,” said Troyer as reported by the Washington Post. “Sometimes compliance with state law is relevant to that, and sometimes it’s not. We do not make decisions based on labels like ‘compliance with state law.’ Labels are not relevant to us – people’s safety is.” Troyer plans to collaborate with Colorado drug task forces to prevent black market sales of drugs, but he acknowledges that even dispensaries that are not engaged in black market trade are illegal under federal law.

Bob Troyer took office following the resignation of former Obama nominee John Walsh in 2016. Pending confirmation, Trump nominee Jason Dunn will take his place, but it is unclear how long the confirmation process could take. Despite his likely short, remaining tenure in office, Troyer intends to crack down on those hiding behind state law to conduct illegal business.

Why does the federal government view legal dispensaries as potentially dangerous?

Recently, Troyer penned an opinion column in which he reassessed how recreational marijuana legalization has impacted the quality of life in Colorado. Many marijuana-based businesses within Colorado illegally export marijuana to non-legal states. “Colorado has a booming black market exploiting our permissive regulatory system – including Mexican cartel growers for that black market who use nerve-agent pesticides that are contaminating Colorado’s soil,” Troyer wrote.

Troyer believes even legal businesses can endanger their community in unintended ways. In addition to harmful pesticides, legally-sold marijuana can become contaminated with mold. More than 40 recalls have been ordered on marijuana products in Colorado since recreational use was legalized. Growing marijuana is also a significant drain on Colorado’s power and water resources. According to statistics given by Troyer in his column, “An indoor marijuana grow consumes 17 times more power per square foot than an average residence… Adult marijuana plants grown by licensed growers in Colorado consume over 2.2 liters of water [each] per day.”

The U.S. Attorney General’s office explictly declined to say whether they would target legal marijuana vendors, but they did leave the possibility open in the future. For now, Troyer is focusing on vendors who break state as well as federal laws by participating in illegal drug trade. Colorado drug task forces, with Troyer’s assistance, plan to take action against a specific vendor chain that Troyer alleges is a front for illegitimate drug trafficking.

For now, many marijuana industry supporters aren’t taking issue with Troyer’s crackdown. Kim Casey, a spokeswoman for the Native Roots marijuana dispensary, believes that illegal drug trafficking taking place in licensed facilities “makes it really hard for the rest of [vendors] to overcome the negative stigma linked to the industry.”

Other legal marijuana advocates like Kristi Kelly, the executive director of Marijuana Industry Group, are concerned federal agents may unduly punish businesses acting within the law. “Targeting legal dispensaries that are doing their best to follow the letter of Colorado’s laws makes no sense without meeting with the owners and discussing their interpretations of the laws. We would have extreme concerns about that,” said Kelly.

Due to Troyer’s vague language and the possibility that he will be removed from office soon, it is unclear how this crackdown will affect legal marijuana retailers. As long as federal and Colorado state laws remain vague, legal dispensaries will continue to struggle with adhering to the laws. Kristi Kelly believes “ambiguity is not helpful to the cause,” and lawmakers need to write more clearly defined legislation.