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Hatch presses Holder on 'mixed' signals over legalizing pot

Published January 29, 2014 7:52 pm

Colorado pot • Utah senator says the legalization won't deter drug cartels from cultivating pot on public lands.
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Washington • Attorney General Eric Holder assured Sen. Orrin Hatch on Wednesday that the federal government would get involved if marijuana legally sold in Colorado were to cross into Utah or be grown on federal lands within the state.

Hatch pressed Holder during an oversight hearing on why the Justice Department has refused to enforce the Controlled Substances Act, which bars selling or growing marijuana. Colorado allows recreational users to buy up to one ounce of pot and the federal government has said it won't, for the most part, intervene.

"There's a direct link between the U.S. marijuana trade and large-scale drug-trafficking organizations that threaten the safety and well-being of our country," Hatch said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday. "Now legalization in Colorado threatens the success that we have been seeing in tackling the problem."

Legalizing marijuana isn't likely to deter drug cartels from cultivating pot on public lands, Hatch argued, especially since the demand in Colorado is "wildly exceeding supply.

"I really think this policy shift sends a mixed and dangerous message to both the law enforcement community and fellow citizens," Hatch said.

Holder said the feds would swoop in to situations where interstate trafficking is involved and to prevent marijuana cultivation on federal lands. Those are two of eight reasons the Justice Department said it would seek prosecution of marijuana sales or distribution, the others involving impaired driving, use by minors and connections to cartels or gangs.

"I share those concerns and those concerns are expressed in the eight priorities that we set out," Holder said, referring to a plan Justice put forward to prioritize when the federal government would enforce the Controlled Substances Act.

tburr@sltrib.com