Colorado marijuana industry continues to grow despite AG’s tough talk; local congress reps seek protections

As the country has taken a more liberal view of marijuana usage and sales, the country’s top cop has made it known he’s not on board with legal marijuana. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has sounded a remarkably different tone that the Obama Administration's hands-off approach to the marijuana industry in states like Colorado.

AURORA | Living in interesting times can be a blessing or a curse. Colorado’s marijuana industry finds itself in an interesting times.

As the country has shifted toward a more liberal view of marijuana usage and sales — 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized pot in one form or another — the country’s top cop has made it known he’s not on board. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has sounded a remarkably different tone than that of former attorneys general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch who, under the purview of the Obama Administration, took a more hands-off approach to the marijuana industry in states like Colorado.

“I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use, but too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable,” Sessions said in a March 15 speech to law enforcement officials. “I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life.”

While Reps. Mike Coffman (R-Aurora) and Diana DeGette (D-Denver) have sponsored a bill this year that would protect a state’s right to legalize marijuana while the federal government continues to classify it as a Schedule 1 drug, similar measures have failed to gain any traction in the House. And as the tone from the Trump Administration becomes increasingly hostile toward the pot industry, business owners in Colorado and elsewhere have been left to wonder if all the noise is just talk or the prelude to a crackdown.

While the tone out of the Trump administration hasn’t affected the everyday operations of dispensaries, it could start to have a chilling effect on investment in the growing industry, according to Andy Williams, CEO and president of marijuana consulting firm Medicine Man Technologies and Medicine Man marijuana dispensaries.

“It affects business in that it can be really hard to get capital for growth. You can’t get that investment from banks so you have to use private equity,” he said. “It gives more pause to people who, so far, have been on the fence about investing.

“In terms of, does it impact how we do business? No. If you’re in business and you get afraid every time someone in government says something about marijuana, you shouldn’t be in this business,” he added.

Kristi Kelly, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, said the industry has always kept a close eye on the federal landscape, which has an effect on the way businesses make decisions. But she said the increase in rhetoric hasn’t slowed down the growth in investment in the industry or the demand from the public.

“What is different, though, is we’ve taken a much more vocal role as members, and independently, in raising awareness of the importance of being extra vigilant and extra compliant and advancing the model of regulations we have in Colorado,” Kelly said. “It’s our position that a legalized and regulated market is a direct deterrent to cartels and illegal markets that would exist.

“It’s not just will of people, it’s the single most effective deterrent to cartels and criminal activity that nobody wants to see,” she added.

Williams said the growing public support for legal pot means it might be politically infeasible to reverse course, even if Sessions might want to crack down on the industry. With three-fifths of states having legalized at least medical marijuana, Williams said a lot of Electoral College votes could be at stake, especially for a sitting administration that was voted in by narrow margins in key states.

Of the three states considered the most crucial victories for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, Pennsylvania has already legalized medical marijuana and reports suggest Michigan and Wisconsin — the latter of which recently passed a law making it legal to use marijuana extract to treat seizures — could soon follow suit.

“If you’re in an administration and having hard time doing things you want to do, it doesn’t seem like a smart time to crack down,” Williams said.