- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2015

DENVER — Nobody in the Colorado marijuana industry is panicking, but those involved are sweating a little over the hard line taken by Loretta Lynch, President Obama’s pick to be the next attorney general, on legalization during this week’s Senate confirmation hearing.

“Quite a few of my members were expressing concern and nervousness,” said Michael Elliott, executive director of the Colorado Marijuana Industry Group. “But I’m not sure we could have expected much more than we just heard. Even the president, who came out saying that marijuana is no more dangerous as alcohol, is also on the record as being against legalization.”

States that have legalized or are considering legalizing recreational marijuana use butted heads continually with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who refused to relax stricter federal laws against pot use. Judging from this week’s performance, the fight won’t end when Mr. Holder leaves.

A federal prosecutor in New York, Ms. Lynch told the Senate Committee on the Judiciary she disagreed with the president’s no-big-deal take on pot, saying, “I certainly don’t hold that view and don’t agree with that view of marijuana as a substance.”

“I think the president was speaking from his personal experience and personal opinion, neither of which I’m able to share,” Ms. Lynch said. “But I can tell you that not only do I not support the legalization of marijuana, it is not the position of the Department of Justice currently to support the legalization. Nor would it be the position should I become confirmed as attorney general.”

Her stance buoyed legalization foes such as Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, who said in a statement, “We are breathing a sigh of relief.”

“For her to come out so adamantly against legalization is extremely encouraging,” said Mr. Sabet, a former official in the White House drug czar’s office. “It will give our efforts a shot in the arm.”

Marijuana advocates downplayed her responses, pointing out that she was testifying before the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee and that its chairman, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, opposes recent state moves to legalize recreational marijuana.

In fact, the day before Wednesday’s hearing, Mr. Grassley took to the Senate floor to condemn the Obama administration’s decision to allow states that have legalized recreational pot for adults to proceed within certain parameters with regulated retail markets. Federal laws banning pot, he said, should trump state statutes.

Colorado and Washington launched retail marijuana markets last year, while voters in Alaska and Oregon passed ballot measures in November allowing recreational pot use and sales for adults 21 and over. The District of Columbia has approved adult pot use but not sales.

Mason Tvert, who led the successful 2012 ballot campaign in Colorado, argued that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and cracked, “Fortunately, [Ms. Lynch] has been nominated for attorney general, not surgeon general.”

“We can only hope she was telling some lawmakers what they need to hear in order to get through the confirmation process,” Mr. Tvert said in an email. “It would be shocking if she is actually unaware that marijuana is far less harmful than alcohol.”

The Department of Justice issued a guidance in 2013 that essentially allows states to proceed with adult marijuana use and sales while warning that prosecutors would still enforce eight priorities, including keeping marijuana away from children and avoiding pot diversion to other states.

Tom Angell, who heads Marijuana Majority, said in an email that Ms. Lynch also appeared to indicate that she would follow the Justice Department guidance.

“While it’d be ideal to have an attorney general who agrees with the majority of Americans that it is time to end marijuana prohibition, we really don’t need federal officials to personally support legalization,” Mr. Angell. “We only need them to respect the will of voters who have implemented legalization in their own states.”

“As long as they don’t spend resources trying to overturn those duly enacted laws, I’m much less concerned about the personal views of Justice Department personnel,” Mr. Angell said.

Any federal crackdown on retail marijuana would hit Colorado hardest. The state’s recreational and medical marijuana businesses did an estimated $760 million in sales in 2014, and that number could hit $1 billion this year, Mr. Elliott said.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense for that office to ignore drug cartels and organized criminal enterprises to go after these state-licensed businesses which are heavily controlled,” Mr. Elliott said. “It’s a waste of resources, particularly when this first year of legal marijuana sales has gone very well, with some exceptions. This is widely seen as a successful program.”

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