By Shawn Chitnis

DENVER (CBS4) – State leaders and the cannabis industry responded Saturday to the decision by the Department of Justice to end a policy of not interfering with legal marijuana laws across the country.

They say it goes against what they were told by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year and it will start a new drug war.

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(credit: David McNew/Getty Images)

“We knew that Sessions had had issues with cannabis from the very beginning,” said Wanda James, CEO of Simply Pure. The Denver dispensary provides recreational and medical marijuana as well as edibles.

James says President Donald Trump never really shared an opinion on the issue, but his attorney general has always been critical of the drug and anyone in the marijuana business wasn’t surprised by his decision.

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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions (credit: CBS)

Sessions announced Thursday he was rescinding a memo from the Obama Administration that told prosecutors with the Justice Department not to pursue cases against anyone involved in the cannabis industry.

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(credit: CBS)

Even though the drug has been decriminalized in several states across the U.S. in various forms, it still remains illegal at the federal level. Legal experts say it will now be up to U.S. attorneys in each of those states to decide if they want to enforce those laws.

“I think it’s shortsighted,” James added. “I think that it is an absurd place that we would think that we would actually bring back a failed drug war.”

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Wanda James pictured in the center. (credit: CBS)

James says the past “War on Drugs” cost the country billions of dollars and ended the lives of millions of people. It also created the issue of mass incarceration in America. As the first African American licensed in the country to sell cannabis, she worries about the impact this change will have on the disparity within the marijuana business and those previously prosecuted for possessing the drug.

On the same day she was sharing her concerns about this policy, state leaders in Colorado went on national television to explain the confusion this creates for their constituents.

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“Well it throws Colorado both legally and from a business perspective into a limbo,” Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a Republican and candidate for governor, told CNN. “It takes away the direction that we had from the previous administration that gave people some guidance and allowed them to do business legally in the state of Colorado.”

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Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman spoke about the marijuana industry on CNN Sunday morning. (credit: CNN)

Both Coffman and the current governor of the state explained in interviews with CNN that the president and Sessions gave them the impression this was not going to be an important issue for the federal government.

“I do think this is an issue where states’ rights is valuable. This nation that all the states are laboratories of democracy,” Hickenlooper told CNN. “I met with Attorney General Sessions and he had assured me that … he has higher priorities. He’s got heroin issues, he’s got sex trafficking, and like all of government, limited resources.”

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Gov. John Hickenlooper spoke about the marijuana industry on CNN Sunday morning. (credit: CNN)

Hickenlooper went on to say in the interview that while he knows Sessions does not believe legalizing marijuana is best for the nation, Sessions suggested he would not have the resources to prosecute anyone as long as they were obeying local laws.

It’s an issue that has united the leaders of both parties in Colorado to push back against the Trump administration. James says the marijuana industry appreciates that support, but also knows politicians have to defend their cause if they want to stay in office.

“It would almost ensure in the states where we have legal cannabis, it would almost ensure the fact that they would not be reelected,” James explained to CBS4. “Any elected official that stands in that way will not be an elected official for long.”

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Coffman explained that the inconsistency in guidance she has seen at the national level will prevent anything from changing in the state at the moment.

“There’s a real tension here that I perceive between the Department of Justice and Attorney General Sessions’ approach and what the Trump administration has said about states’ rights and states who have legalized marijuana and medical marijuana being left to continue understate law,” she said. “It leaves us in a quandary in many ways, so we’re going to continue business as usual in Colorado.”

Hickenlooper went further to say that legalization has actually helped to take on one of the other drug issues the administration outlined as a priority in 2017.

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(Photo Credit: Thinkstock)

“The American Journal of Public Health did a study focused on Colorado where they compare Colorado and the legalization of recreational marijuana to opioid use and abuse,” he said. “They showed about a 6, I think it was a 6.5 percent reduction in opioid abuse and opioid deaths by having that legalized recreational marijuana.”

James says the industry will take the same approach as Colorado state leaders. She hopes by watching the industry prosper and support for legalization increasing across the country, prosecutors will not want to touch this issue.

“We continue to grow,” she said. “We continue to bring in more tax dollars, we continue to give more people jobs, and we continue to save more babies and more people with epilepsy.”

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The move by the Justice Department comes right after another state legalized recreational use of the drug. James believes this will force the country to have a larger conversation about the issue.

“Where goes California, so goes America,” she said.

An act of Congress to vote on whether marijuana should be legal is the end result James hopes will come out of the policy change. But for now, she wants to focus on the threat of another attack on people of color and poor people.

“This issue, we have got to understand in America, is truly about social justice,” James said. “It is a way for rich people to make money and for poor people to be brought down to the level of slave labor, and at the end of the day, that’s what we’re fighting.”

Shawn Chitnis reports for CBS4 News at 10 on weekends and CBS4 News at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. throughout the week. Email him story ideas at smchitnis@cbs.com and connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.

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