Saturday, January 4, 2014
Law enforcement conflicts still exist with legal pot
Local law enforcement agencies have struggled to abide by conflicting state and federal laws.
With the purchase of recreational marijuana now legal, local law enforcement agencies continue to struggle with conflicts between state and federal law in post-Amendment 64 Colorado.
While citations issued by the Loveland Police Department for possession of marijuana have drastically decreased -- a 60 percent drop from 2012 to 2013, according to the most recent department statistics -- police chief Luke Hecker has directed his officers to adhere to federal law following legal searches of people or vehicles.
That means that any amount of marijuana that an officer takes into custody during a legal search is seized, sent to the evidence room and labeled for destruction. Otherwise, Hecker said that officers set themselves up to violate federal law, where marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug, by giving it back.
"We defer to our obligation to uphold the U.S. Constitution as much as the statutes of Colorado and recognize that federal laws are overreaching," Hecker said.
Tom Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program, said that law enforcement agencies across the state have had to make decisions about the gray area that now exists between federal and state law.
"What Colorado has done is licensed organizations and individuals to violate federal law," he said.
Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith said he shares the concerns around the conflict, which has not been made any clearer in the year since the law has been in effect.
"We typically avoid it by not taking custody of marijuana," he said. "If it comes into our custody, we can't be in the distribution business."
The situation is popping up more often with DUI and DUI drug arrests where a person has pot in the vehicle, and Smith said it's handled largely on a case-by-case basis and at the discretion of the officer. If it's not relevant to the case, the marijuana might be left in the vehicle.
"Different agencies have different ways of handling it," Smith said. "I think we all have the same concern, that you have two laws that are both valid."
After the passage of Amendment 64, law enforcement officials had hoped for direction from the federal government on how to proceed, and Hecker said he is "gravely disappointed" in their response, or lack thereof.
In August 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole issued a memorandum indicating that the federal government would not interfere with state measures to legalize marijuana. The memo called for state and local law enforcement to "implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that will address the threat those state laws could pose to public safety, public health, and other law enforcement interests."
"We have received very little direction and no support for how to rectify the conflict between the federal and the state level," Hecker said.
On Wednesday, retail pot operations opened for business in jurisdictions that voted to license and regulate establishments. Most of those are currently located in Denver; the Loveland City Council voted last August to ban pot retailers, commercial growers and marijuana-related businesses, with some councilors citing the conflict with federal law.
By Jessica Maher, Reporter-Herald Staff Writer, 669-5050, ext. 516, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @JessicaMaherRH
Source: The Loveland Reporter-Herald