Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. won't be the one answering senators' questions about how the U.S. Department of Justice will respond to state-based marijuana legalization efforts, the Senate Judiciary Committee has announced.
Instead, Deputy Attorney General James Cole will testify at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, a Democratic committee staffer said. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman, had invited both Holder and Cole to talk about the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws.
Cole was the Main Justice lawyer who wrote the memo last week that laid out the Justice Department's approach to state-based legalization efforts. Federal drug enforcers will not move to block laws in Colorado and Washington as long as the states implement strong regulatory regimes.
Also testifying at the hearing: Jack Finlaw, the chief legal counsel for Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, and John Urquhart, the sheriff in King County, Wash.
Justice Department press officials did not immediately respond to questions about why Cole is taking the lead on the issue. For months, Holder had been the official answering questions about marijuana laws during oversight hearings before the House and Senate.
While the memo answered one of the most pressing legal issues about the Colorado and Washington laws, it left open some smaller issues. For example, Leahy wants to know whether Washington state officials who license marijuana retailers risk prosecution for carrying out their duties.
Criminal defense lawyer and blogger Scott Greenfield wrote that the memo twists and wiggles. "Of course, it does not direct the United States Attorneys to immediately send out its troops to round up the usual suspects," Greenfield wrote. "But then, it also doesn't direct them not to, if they feel like it."
And in the meantime, U.S. attorneys in western states are discussing their interpretation of the Cole memo.
The memo will not affect the crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries for the office of U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag in the Northern District of California. Law enforcement has closed about a dozen such dispensaries in the San Francisco Bay area, the SF Examiner reported.
Lili Arauzhaase, a Haag spokeswoman, told that paper that "for the most part it appears that the cases that have been brought in this district are already in compliance with the guidelines."
In the Eastern District of California, U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner told The Huffington Post that the memo seeks to ensure there is better collaboration between state and federal authorities.
A spokesman for Colorado U.S. Attorney John Walsh told the Colorado Springs Independent that the office will continue to prosecute large-scale drug traffickers, consistent with previous Justice Department memos. "And so, inasmuch as that is consistent with what we've been doing in the past, I think there's not going to be a substantial change," the spokesman said.