Scratching heads over pot policies

House panel grills drug agency official about enforcement in Colorado

Keywords: Politics, Marijuana,
U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado John Walsh, center, said his office does not target individual pot users who smoke on private property during testimony Tuesday before the House Oversight Subcommittee on Government Operations. Enlargephoto

J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado John Walsh, center, said his office does not target individual pot users who smoke on private property during testimony Tuesday before the House Oversight Subcommittee on Government Operations.

A congressional hearing last week called to clear up federal marijuana policy in Colorado and Washington turned into a bashing of the Drug Enforcement Administration by Democratic congressmen.

U.S. Attorney John Walsh, the top federal prosecutor in Colorado, testified that he is following Attorney General Eric Holder’s direction to focus on eight priorities in marijuana cases, including keeping the drug away from children and keeping drug cartels out of the state’s marijuana industry.

“The U.S. Attorney’s office in Colorado does not, and has not ever in my time there, focus on individuals who are using marijuana on private property,” Walsh said.

But most of the hearing before the House Oversight Subcommittee on Government Operations in Washington, D.C., was dominated by three Democratic congressmen sharply questioning Deputy DEA Administrator Thomas Harrigan.

Harrigan said it’s too soon to say how his agency is handling Colorado, which had its first over-the-counter sales of recreational pot in January.

“So you’re still scratching your head.” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., asked Harrigan.

“I scratch my head every day, sir. You have no idea,” Harrigan said.

Although 21 states have legalized medical marijuana, and Colorado and Washington have legalized the drug for any purpose, it remains on the federal Schedule 1 controlled substance list for the most dangerous drugs.

“There are no sound scientific, economic or social reasons for us to change our nation’s marijuana policies,” Harrigan said.

But instead of demanding tighter enforcement in Colorado by the Obama administration, congressmen in both parties expressed a desire to see whether legalization will work.

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., was especially interested in hemp, a nonintoxicating version of the cannabis plant that has many uses.

“We have people ready to grow industrial hemp, but they don’t want to go to jail,” Massie said.

But Walsh said in the absence of specific guidance from the Department of Justice, he has to exercise his prosecutorial judgment about whether to target hemp-growing farmers.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said marijuana businesses need access to banks.

“We have legitimate businesses in Colorado, paying their taxes as we want them to do, with shopping bags full of $20 bills,” Blumenauer said.

But Harrigan said drug traffickers can take advantage of banks – something he’s already seeing after last month’s federal policy announcement allowing banks to do business with pot shops.

“We’ve already seen foreign drug-trafficking organizations attempting to exploit these new banking rules,” he said.

Harrigan said he could not discuss specific investigations.

Blumenauer also pressed Harrigan on his claims about the dangers of marijuana, asking Harrigan how many people have died of marijuana overdoses.

“I’m not aware of any, sir,” Harrigan said.

Blumenauer said Americans have stopped paying attention to the DEA’s warnings about marijuana.

“When we can’t give our kids and their families straight answers, I think it undermines their credibility,” he said. “It’s not effective at keeping it out of the hands of our kids.”

Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said he’s not sure he wants to see marijuana legalized, but he thinks it’s indefensible that four times more black people are arrested on federal marijuana charges as white people, even though rates of use are about the same in both groups.

Walsh said every federal agent he knows is careful about not discriminating.

“I do think there is room to be concerned with the way that plays out,” Walsh said.

jhanel@cortezjournal.com