The Department of Justice's announcement Thursday that it would leave marijuana enforcement to the states -- with the exception of certain priority areas, such as use by minors and trafficking beyond state borders -- did not come as a surprise to Boulder-area law enforcement officials, politicians or pot business owners.
But they nonetheless welcomed the reassurance provided by the new directive to federal prosecutors.
"What I've felt for a long time is that in Colorado, first under the medical scheme and now under the more broad-based legal framework, we've put in place a pretty comprehensive regulatory framework," Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett said. "The federal government needs to give Colorado the space to figure out how to make this work. I'm glad the federal government is allowing us to implement what the voters approved."
The next step, Garnett said, is for Congress to change federal law to give the states authority over marijuana law.
A memo to federal prosecutors from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder reiterates the long-held federal position that marijuana is illegal and outlines eight priority areas for federal enforcement.
Those are: preventing use by minors, preventing marijuana revenue from being diverted to organized crime, preventing the movement of marijuana from states where it is legal to those where it is not, preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover for illegal activity, preventing violence in the production and distribution of marijuana, preventing drugged driving and other adverse public health effects, preventing marijuana cultivation on federal lands and preventing marijuana use and possession on federal property.
Outside of those enforcement priorities, the federal government will rely on state and local authorities to develop and enforce their own regulations, as it traditionally has, the Justice Department said.
"For states such as Colorado and Washington that have enacted laws to authorize the production, distribution and possession of marijuana, the Department expects these states to establish strict regulatory schemes that protect the eight federal interests identified in the Department's guidance," the Justice Department said in a news release accompanying the announcement.
"These schemes must be tough in practice, not just on paper, and include strong, state-based enforcement efforts, backed by adequate funding. Based on assurances that those states will impose an appropriately strict regulatory system, the Department has informed the governors of both states that it is deferring its right to challenge their legalization laws at this time."
Gov. John Hickenlooper said the state shares the enforcement priorities of the Justice Department and thanked federal officials for respecting the will of Colorado voters.
"We recognize how difficult this issue has been for the Department of Justice, and we appreciate the thoughtful approach it has taken," his office said in a news release. "Amendment 64 put Colorado in conflict with federal law. Today's announcement shows the federal government is respecting the will of Colorado voters."
He said the state would continue to work on improving education around drug use aimed at young people, as well as enforcement to prevent access by those younger than 21 and to prevent marijuana businesses from becoming fronts for illegal activity and the export of marijuana.
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Boulder Democrat who has sponsored legislation that would leave marijuana law to the states, called the announcement "great news for Colorado."
Polis had been increasingly critical of the federal government for not making its intentions clear, even as Colorado and Washington moved to implement regulatory schemes and taxes.
"I'm thrilled that finally the attorney general has given Colorado the guidance it needs to implement Amendment 64," he said.
However, Congress still needs to act so that the policy cannot be reversed on the "whim" of either Holder or a future attorney general, Polis said.
Shawn Coleman, a former aide to Polis who worked on the passage of Amendment 64 and now represents marijuana business owners, said DOJ announcement "could not have come at a better time," as cities and towns around the state adopt their own local marijuana regulations.
In many ways, the federal stance can be seen as an endorsement of the regulatory approach taken to medical marijuana and of the bill passed this year for the regulation of recreational marijuana.
"What I hope that does is give the City Council the encouragement to retain the code they have now in place," Coleman said. "Boulder, of any city, has done the best job. These businesses are going to be exactly the same (as the medical businesses). They should keep the code as much the same as they possibly can."
But Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum said recreational marijuana does represent new challenges, particularly when it comes to minors, as customers will no longer have to present a medical marijuana card. And keeping marijuana out of the hands of children will remain a federal priority.
Appelbaum also noted that audits have slammed the state's medical marijuana enforcement division for lax oversight. Boulder might do its job well, but the state needs to do better if it wants the feds to take a hands-off approach, he said.
Appelbaum said the memo does provide some reassurance to local governments and businesses. However, he said the federal government could do more to encourage compliance if it opened up banking to the marijuana industry so it doesn't remain cash only.
Ryan Borowski, a budtender at The Farm, a Boulder dispensary, echoed that desire for further legitimacy.
With no crackdown on medical marijuana businesses, Borowski said most owners were not too worried about federal prosecutors coming after recreational marijuana businesses. However, it's a relief to see the government take an official position that it won't go after law-abiding businesses.
The next step will be changes to banking and IRS rules that keep the businesses operating on a cash basis, with no access to credit, and without the ability to write off business expenses.
Still, Borowski sees the announcement as part of a trend that will end with legalization.
"They're going to stay out of our way," he said. "That's pretty much what the entire nation is looking for from the government these days. If it's an individual right, the government should stay out of it."
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said the announcement doesn't change anything about how his deputies or the drug task force will do their jobs. The focus will continue to be on drugged driving and availability to minors, as well as interstate trafficking.
However, if the federal government had taken the opposite stance and demanded cooperation with strict enforcement, it would have placed his office in a bind. Pelle said he's bound to uphold the state constitution, which, with Amendment 64, allows for personal use and regulated local businesses.
Boulder city officials are still working on recommended regulations for the recreational industry, which they expect to finalize this fall.
"While the DOJ announcement clarifies the prioritization that federal authorities may give to criminal activity related to marijuana, it has always been clear to the city of Boulder that enforcement of local regulations and laws will be our responsibility," Boulder spokeswoman Sarah Huntley said. "This has been a driving factor in our efforts to create a regulatory structure and enforcement policies and practices that are both meaningful and responsive to our specific community's needs."