Medical marijuana: Jared Polis shrugs off seizure letters amid sellout claims

U.S. Attorney John Walsh's seizure letters to 23 dispensaries near schools sent shock waves through the local medical marijuana community, since most if not all of the centers were legal under Colorado law. Afterward, criticism of Representative Jared Polis, a longtime MMJ supporter, mounted, with one scene participant telling Westword, "He sold us out." But when asked about such allegations, Polis's spokesman declined to lambaste the Justice Department, essentially giving the feds a pass for the action.

Polis hasn't been shy about rubbing shoulders with medical marijuana types. For instance, he was the guest of honor at a National Cannabis Industry Association event last May. And just last month, he questioned Attorney General Eric Holder about possible federal intervention in the MMJ industry.

At the same time, Polis has downplayed the possibility of a widespread Justice Department crackdown. Last summer, for example, California U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag issued a sabre-rattling letter that seemed to contradict a 2009 memo by Deputy Attorney General David Ogden; it directed U.S. Attorneys not to target medical marijuana businesses in states where they're legal as long as they're following state law. In response, however, Polis communications director Chris Fitzgerald insisted that the sky wasn't falling.

Jared Polis, right, with attendees of a National Cannabis Industry Association event in May, including activist Brian Vicente.
Jared Polis, right, with attendees of a National Cannabis Industry Association event in May, including activist Brian Vicente.
Photo by Kim Sidwell

"The congressman's preference would have been for the Justice Department to step up and lift the threat of arrest and prosecution and make it clear that state-endorsed, voter-approved medical marijuana businesses aren't going to be raided," Fitzgerald said. "Unfortunately, they didn't take that far a step. But at the same time, the memo doesn't seem to alter the Ogden memo significantly. It still provides U.S. Attorneys with discretion when it comes to prosecutions, and we would urge them to use that discretion."

Many MMJ industry types believe the seizure letters -- coupled with Walsh's promise that he's not bluffing about the threats they contain -- demonstrate that discretion has flown out the window. But via e-mail, Fitzgerald, again representing Polis, rejects the notion that Polis has turned his back on the industry by not launching a full-blown attack on Walsh's policy.

"Congressman Polis strongly supports Colorado's state-legal and well-regulated medical marijuana industry, as it creates jobs and boosts tax revenues," Fitzgerald notes. "He will continue to advocate forcefully for the industry and insist that the Justice Department keep its word that businesses that are in compliance with state law are not an enforcement priority."

However, Fitzgerald doesn't specifically denounce the seizure letters. He writes, "Federal and Colorado law both state that these business cannot be within 1,000 feet of a school and Congressman Polis supports this policy."

One possible interpretation: Polis believes it would be risky, even in his presumably safe Boulder-area district, to be seen as advocating marijuana sales near schools, and he doesn't want to hand a future opponent a cannabis-scented cudgel with which to beat him. So he's trying to balance support of the industry with political realities.

If so, Walsh was extremely canny in targeting dispensaries near schools -- even ones that had been grandfathered in to zoning rules and are therefore legal. By doing so, he's effectively muted much of the criticism that might have been directed against him by otherwise sympathetic public figures like Polis.

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More from our Marijuana archive: "Colorado Attorney General John Suthers rips new Obama administration medical-marijuana regulations."

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