Grassley: DOJ 'Giving Green Light to an Entire Industry Predicated on Breaking Federal Law'

By Susan Jones | September 12, 2013 | 12:08pm EDT

The Justice Department announced in August that it will not challenge state laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use. (AP Photo)

( - A Republican senator is questioning the Obama administration's refusal to challenge state laws in Colorado and Washington State that make it legal to smoke marijuana for fun. (21 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes.)

"These policies do not seem to be compatible with the responsibility of our Justice Department to faithfully discharge their duties, and they may be a violation of our treaty obligations," Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told a Justice Department official at a Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday.

"Prosecutorial discretion may be one thing, but giving the green light to an entire industry predicated on breaking federal law is quite another. These policies are another example of this administration ignoring laws that it views as inconvenient or that it doesn't like. Whether its immigration laws or Obama(care) deadlines, the list is long, and it hardly needs to be repeated.

"But what's really striking in this case is that the Department of Justice is so quick to challenge state laws when it doesn't like or want to enforce them," Grassley continued.

"States that change their voting laws to require an ID? ‘Well, we'll see you in court.’ States that try to secure their borders when the federal government won't? Expect a lawsuit. But if some folks want to start an industry dedicated to breaking federal law -- well, then the department's position is to wait and see how it works out.

But we already have a pretty good idea how it works out -- and the answer is badly," Grassley said.

Grassley mentioned the increase in driving fatalities involving drivers who tested positive for marijuana; an increase in drug-related suspensions and expulsions from Colorado schools; and he cited statistics showing that Colorado is becoming a significant exporter of marijuana to the rest of the country.

Cash, guns and shootouts

Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said he worries about the legal marijuana industry operating as cash-only businesses, and he wants to relax federal banking laws so that doesn’t happen.

Leahy noted that banks won't provide checking or credit card services to state-authorized pot dispensaries because the banks fear they may be violating federal money-laundering laws.

"That's a prescription for problems -- tax evasion and so on," Leahy said. He also raised concerns about reports that federal drug enforcement agents have warned armored car companies to stop doing business with pot dispensaries.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole agreed that the banking issue needs to be dealt with. "Obviously there is a public safety concern when businesses have a lot of cash sitting around. There's a tendency that there's guns associated with that, so it's important to deal with that kind of issue," he told the committee.

Cole said the Justice Department is talking about bringing in bank regulators "to discuss ways that this could be dealt with in accordance with laws that we have on the books today."

As far as the DEA is concerned, Cole said it's his understanding that the DEA is not telling armored car companies to stay away from pot dispensaries.

"Well," Leahy responded, "that implication is out there, and I would hope that you clear it up because I don't want to see a shootout somewhere and have innocent people or law enforcement endangered by that."

DOJ expects ‘strong enforcement’ from states

Cole told the panel that the federal government focuses its anti-marijuana efforts in eight specific areas, as follows:

Preventing distribution to minors; preventing revenue from going to gangs and criminal enterprises; preventing diversion of marijuana to states where it is illegal; preventing legal marijuana activity from being used as a pretext for trafficking other illegal drugs; preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana; preventing drugged driving; preventing pot-growing on public lands; and preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.

Last month, the Justice Department informed Colorado and Washington that it would not challenge recreational marijuana legalization in those states.

"We advised the governors that we expected their states to implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems" that don't undermine federal policies. DOJ also told the governors the department would continue to investigate and prosecute any marijuana activity that violates its eight enforcement priorities.

Cole said the Justice Department reserves the right to challenge the Colorado and Washington State laws at another time, if problems materialize.

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