Will legalized marijuana hurt Colorado or not?

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As Colorado’s marijuana industry grows, cannabis advocates and policy experts have differing interpretations as to the response from the federal government.

The Obama administration has been relatively passive in enforcing federal marijuana policy, but it’s unknown if that leniency will continue for the 18 states (and Washington, D.C.) that have legalized medical marijuana, as well as Colorado and Washington with legalized recreational use.

But local government can’t wait for Washington. On Tuesday, the Springs City Council will vote to ban retail sales inside city limits or for a moratorium to give it time to come up with local regulations.

So many questions remain. Among them: What will the federal government do if it decides the state is disregarding congressional law? Will the state lose federal grants? Funding for transportation?

So far, no one really knows. Concerns about increasing federal interference and pressure are so prevalent that the U.S. Conference of Mayors last month passed a resolution to end prohibition of marijuana altogether.

Advocacy groups, including the D.C.-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law, worry about possible repercussions from the disparity between state/local laws and federal law.

NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre said that although many entities are in the clear from federal intervention, some agencies have already been affected. He claims that despite many entities being at risk of crackdown, the only one that has seen regular U.S. enforcement is federally subsidized housing.

“That has set up the most immediate and dramatic conflict, where people are just getting thrown out of their homes … for no other reason other than the feds know they use cannabis,” St. Pierre said about the enforcement of federal pot policy in affordable housing programs.

This “cannabis conundrum,” as St. Pierre calls it, could potentially lead to colleges, universities and other higher education institutions losing what little federal funding they receive — including student financial aid and grants.

Colorado College, Pikes Peak Community College and the University of Colorado system are very clear and expressive about adherence to their policies — adamantly anti-marijuana or any drug use.

University of Colorado Boulder freshman Edward Nicholson faced criminal charges and was suspended from school after police officers confiscated around two ounces of medical marijuana from his dorm room in May 2008. The charges were later dropped because he had been designated a medical marijuana caregiver for his brother.

That case received national attention because all federally affiliated institutions must comply with both the Drug-free Workplace Act and the Drug-free Schools and Communities Act, which strictly prohibit the presence and/or use of marijuana and other drugs. It’s the same law that many defense companies must follow in order to bid on federal contracts.

“There is a precedent of the federal government trying to make states do something they don’t want to do,” St. Pierre said. “They have such sway over [various aspects of higher education] so the federal government has unbelievable sway over these state universities.”

But not everyone sees the looming threat. Brian Vicente, executive director of marijuana advocacy group Sensible Colorado, says a precedent does not exist and there has been no federal intervention concerning legal implementation of state marijuana policies.

“The federal government has never in history denied a local or state government federal grants or funds because of the passage of marijuana or medical marijuana laws,” Vicente said. “There is simply no historical precedent for the opined threat of federal denial of funds to communities in this regard.”

That should be good news to City Council, which has wrestled with the issue for weeks — with some expressing concern about federal intervention and loss of military and government contracts.

St. Pierre said that although federal housing programs are the only ones noticeably affected thus far, the government has targeted gun ownership by medical marijuana users, as well as the benefits of Veterans Administration patients and even eligibility for an organ transplant.

“This conundrum of federalism is at least 15 years old and is starting to rear its ugly head in many ways; some of it was anticipated and some was not,” St. Pierre said. “We’ve already seen a number of instances where [medical marijuana users] were lawful, and all of a sudden they find themselves in this Kafkaesque situation…”

So it’s not as much about what the federal government can do about marijuana, but what the feds will choose to do. Even if the Obama administration continues to forgo prosecution, there’s no telling what the next administration might do.

City Council will have to act next week without that assurance.