District Attorney Bruce Brown: Marijuana legalization not a threat to public safety
February 28, 2017
Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled on Monday that his Justice Department might take a tough line on federal enforcement of marijuana laws, claiming that violence was increasing because of the legalization of pot at the state level.
"We're seeing real violence around that," Sessions said. "Experts are telling me there's more violence around marijuana than one would think and there's big money involved."
Those statements came on the heels of remarks from White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who said last week that states where recreational marijuana is legal would face "greater enforcement."
The new signals from the Trump administration have caused jitters among industry groups, who fear a federal crackdown on what has become a billion-dollar industry in states like Colorado.
But there is also a guarded optimism that a conversation on marijuana enforcement has finally begun, presenting an opportunity for pot boosters to push back against claims, like those made by Sessions, that they say aren't supported by evidence.
"I think that it's good that we have the starting point on the administration's thinking that we were waiting for," said Kristi Kelly, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group. "It's an opportunity to have conversations about their thoughts and opinions and share a more current perspective for inside the marijuana industry."
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Serge Chistov, a partner with the Honest Marijuana Company, said that concerns are running high in the cannabis industry. But he isn't convinced that the federal government has the will to reverse the extensive progress on the legalization front.
"Sessions is going to get push-back and then look at the real numbers, and the numbers that states have are going in the complete opposite direction of that he's insinuating," he said.
Session's remarks about marijuana-related violence drew criticism — and even befuddlement — from industry advocates who say regulated marijuana markets decrease violence.
One statement in particular — when Sessions said, "You can't sue somebody for a drug debt" and violence tends to follow that — was puzzling to Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project.
"In Colorado, they do," he said. "There are plenty of people in court resolving disputes with marijuana businesses partners."
Most studies are cautious in their assessments about crime. None have indicated that marijuana exacerbates it, advocates said.
The latest report from the Colorado Department of Public Safety stresses that not enough data is available to draw any conclusions yet.
Summit County saw at least three reported pot shop break-ins last year, one of which led to the arrest of two men suspected of stealing about $6,000 worth of items and more than $9,000 in cash.
District Attorney Bruce Brown said that was the only high-profile marijuana crime he could remember since legalization.
"It's a tough equation to know with certainty, but I feel like legalization did not at all significantly increase threats to public safety," he said.
Because federal law deters banks from dealing with marijuana stores, most deal in large quantities of cash. That can make them high-value targets for robberies.
Tvert said that's merely a vestige of prohibition, indicating public safety would be better served by advancing legalization further.
He also noted that comments coming from the administration were vague and didn't indicate any concrete policy shift.
"Does 'greater enforcement' mean they're going to crack down on people who are operating illegally in the state systems? Or crack down on interstate trafficking?"
Kelly saw the potential for common cause with the administration on those issues, which negatively impact Colorado's regulated system.
"There's a lot of opportunity to go point by point and have a respectful discourse about what we're trying to do," she said.