Skip to contents
Crime and Courts

Q&A: Jason Dunn, Colorado’s new top federal prosecutor, on marijuana, battling the opioid epidemic and how to stop violent crime

Colorado's U.S. attorney spoke to The Colorado Sun, making his most detailed remarks to the news media since taking office in October

Part of the inscription on the front of the building for the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, on Oct. 16, 2018. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

Colorado’s U.S. attorney holds one of the most powerful law enforcement jobs in the state, overseeing the direction of the regional offices of the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

And that’s just to name a few.

Jason Dunn, who was confirmed as Colorado’s U.S. attorney on Thursday night. (Provided by Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck)

Jason Dunn, the latest person to hold the job, was appointed by President Donald Trump and has big plans to take on a myriad of issues, from the opioid epidemic to violent crime and the state’s massive marijuana black market.

“In large respect, our priorities are driven by what’s happening in the public domain,” Dunn said in an interview Friday with The Colorado Sun, his most extensive since taking office in October.

Some of his ideas are already drawing concern — like his urging of Colorado law enforcement to treat opioid overdose deaths as homicides — while his stance on cannabis has the legal industry mostly at ease that they won’t be impacted.

“I’ve always found Jason to be a really thoughtful and pragmatic lawyer, and also a policy person,” said Bob Hoban, founder and president of the Hoban Law Group, one of the most well-known cannabis law firms in the country. Hoban worked with Dunn early on his career.

Before being tapped for U.S. attorney, Dunn was a shareholder at the powerful Denver law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. Before that, he worked at the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and graduated from the University of Colorado Law School.

The Sun sat down with Dunn to learn more about his plans as the state’s new top federal prosecutor:

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


The Colorado Sun: Every U.S. attorney has a unique agenda and hopes for the office. What do you want to accomplish in your time here?

Jason Dunn: Of course, opioids are a big concern for us right now. We have made that one of our top priorities. We created a task force within our office that’s both criminal and civil. The civil side is really interesting because it’s focused on the diversion of opioids — from doctors, pharmacies, nurse practitioners. Clearly if we can get people to stop abusing prescription opioids, then we can have a huge impact on the heroin problem. Obviously stopping people from abusing prescription opioids starts with getting doctors and pharmacists and nurses not to improperly divert drugs.  We have started combing through (federal databases) to look for statistical anomalies that will show doctors and pharmacists and nurse practitioners who raise red flags about their prescription methodologies. Or are their patients coming from long distances to doctor shop? You can see when you start charting it where the top people are. You can look at certain kinds of drugs. We can look at how far their patients are traveling.

CS: What about outside of the federal databases?

JD: The challenge for us is the Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare data is all federal stuff. The bigger chunk of data is actually held by the state in their prescription drug monitoring program, which is really all the private insurance. There’s a state statute that says law enforcement can’t get access to that database without a subpoena and only in a specific investigation. So we’ve served subpoenas and gotten it on a specific case-by-case basis. But we really would love to have that data, even if it’s anonymized initially to mine it and see where the statistical outliers are. We’ve had conversations with the state about that. I think they feel hamstrung by the state statute. We can’t get involved in state legislation, but we’ve indicated to them that we think the status is a hindrance.

Jason Dunn, Colorado’s U.S. attorney, photographed on Friday, April 12, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

CS: How can you tackle the issue outside of providers?

JD: More on a street level, we’re focused on overdose deaths from opioids. We are trying to work with local law enforcement — we’ve set up a training program — where we encourage local law enforcement, sheriffs, police and county coronors, to, when they have an overdose death, to not treat that as an accident but to treat that as a potential crime scene. We’re trying to encourage local law enforcement to actually contact us. We’re actually giving them the name of one of our attorneys here that even in the moment at the scene to call him and he can say, ‘look, do this, this, this and this at the scene and treat it like a homicide instead of just a sad overdose.’

MORE: Colorado’s new U.S. attorney wants law enforcement to treat overdose deaths as homicides as he focuses on opioids

CS: I think I’ve seen announcements in the past from Colorado’s U.S. Attorney’s Office on opioids, regarding arrests or indictments, but on a large scale. This seems like smaller actions equaling a bigger impact.

JD: We continue to be focused on large-scale trafficking organizations that may be bringing heroin up from Mexico, or anywhere else. And we certainly are working with our DEA partners and FBI partners and local law enforcement, and have stopped a variety of large-scale drug operations. We are focused on “drug kingpins” out of Mexico that we know are using Colorado as a trafficking point, as a place where the drugs are brought and then distributed throughout the country. We work on a lot of those large-scale cases. But, in terms of the opioid crisis, certainly that’s been a problem that — I think if you look at the statistics — has been a recent phenomenon in terms of abuse, particularly the prescription abuse to the point of overdose. Certainly our office’s focus on the diversion side has a potential to have a significant impact because of the overdose rate. I still think actually that methamphetamine in Colorado is, perhaps on the whole, a bigger problem than opioids because of the number of people who are abusing methamphetamine. But because of the nature of opioids and particularly now with the introduction of fentanyl, the overdose rate is higher on the opioid side so it gets more attention.

Empty pill bottles cover the Opioid Memorial Wall, part of a Colorado campaign called Lift the Label aiming to reduce the stigma around addiction in order to encourage treatment and recovery. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

CS: I think it’s interesting that you are taking a law enforcement approach to overdose deaths and I think we’ve only really seen that in one Colorado judicial district. Can you talk a little bit about that shift and if you have had anyone pushing back?

JD: These are overdoses resulting in death, so there’s no treatment available for the person who is deceased. That’s the issue. You have dealers who either know they are selling fentanyl instead of heroin and know that has already caused death and continue to sell it, then we think they’ve met the required element that they can be charged.

CS: What about violent crime? I know that’s a big part of what the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Colorado has worked to stop in the past.

JD: A surprisingly small number of people are doing the shootings in a metropolitan area of this size. You might only have 30 or 40 people in metro Denver who are actually pulling the trigger. So if you can really target those people and those guns and get them off the street, you’ll have a significant impact on public safety and reduced violence. One of our tools in the toolbox we use with local law enforcement is that we have pretty stiff penalties under federal law for felon in possession of a firearm. We use that as a vehicle not just to throw a lot of people in jail, but to target some of the people we think are the worst actors. So if it’s someone who’s known as a known gang leader or a known drug leader and we can work with local law enforcement on a federal level to charge them as a felon in possession, we can get them significant jail time and get them off the street.

CS: I think a lot of people are looking to you to hear what your stance is on marijuana and how you are going to handle it. What’s your enforcement tact with the Cole Memo, which told federal prosecutors to take a hands off approach to states’ legal pot industries, gone?

JD: I spoke to the industry a month or two ago at a continuing legal event for marijuana lawyers and I outlined what my view of it was. While I didn’t disagree with the repeal of the Cole Memo, when I first read the Cole Memo I was actually surprised because it lists eight different enforcement priorities. Going after those who are selling to children, going after large drug-trafficking organizations who maybe use the revenue from marijuana for other trafficking purposes — there’s a whole list of things. Those seem to make sense. I think the problem with the Cole Memo was sort of what was implied. It essentially was saying: “If you’re not doing one of these things and you’re lawfully operating under state law, the Department of Justice policy is that we will not come after you.”

I think what Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ point was, and I agree with, is that we as law enforcement should never be saying “we won’t enforce the law,” especially when it comes to criminal activity. I told them that the starting point is that marijuana is illegal under federal law. Period. That said, we have to make — as we have to do with any enforcement action or priority — decisions about resources. As does the DEA. And we have to decide where are we going to put our resources. I told the industry: “While operating legally under state law is not a defense or a shield, our priority will be: We are heavily focused on the black market.” The size and scope of the black market in Colorado has been fairly stunning to me. And this is all marijuana that is being grown for out-of-state shipment. It’s not being sold on the streets here. They’re finding Colorado marijuana in just about every state in the union, if not every state.

Automated fans and cultivation lights are pictured operating above cannabis plants at RiNo Supply’s cultivation facility near Lafayette on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. Automation sensors monitor temperature, humidity and light intensity inside the greenhouse as a way of regulating the fans and light output and, according to the cannabis company, help reduce energy-consumption costs. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

CS: How do you address that?

JD: We’re working to figure out what the connection is, but we believe there are hundreds of homes in Colorado that are being used as grow operations through some sort of network. We’re putting significant resources into that and will and I think you will see — without saying too much — some significant activity on that in the next couple of months. Certainly by mid-summer, I’m hopeful.

CS: Comments recently from new U.S. Attorney General William Barr supporting the STATES Act, which would prevent federal law enforcement from interfering in legal, state-level marijuana industries, were interesting. Do you agree with him that it’s the right way to go?

JD: I’m not going to comment on pending legislation. There is obviously a difficult and somewhat untenable situation right now where marijuana is a Schedule I drug at the federal level. We, as law enforcement, need to do our job. We can’t have laws on the books that we are not enforcing. As a general rule, that is not a good place for society to be when some laws are enforced and others are not. I think we need a solution at the national level, I’ll leave it to Congress and the DOJ as to what that solution is.

CS: Obviously immigration is a civil matter. But you certainly have tools, in terms of criminally charging people who are deported and then re-enter the country with a misdemeanor. Or you can charge those who are deported and then re-enter the country and who also have a prior felony conviction with an additional felony. Do you anticipate using those more?

JD: I think we did 125 of those cases here in 2017. Obviously it was before my time, but they were largely felony cases. I think a lot of people have the misunderstanding that the U.S. Attorney’s Office could, if we wanted to, start rounding up people who are here illegally and have them deported. That’s not what our office does — that’s an administrative proceeding by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. We obviously deal with, at the lowest level, a simple re-entry violation, which we do from time to time. But it’s pretty rare. And then we have aggravated felony re-entries where the person has committed a prior felony, been deported, and then re-enters. That’s where we have focused our energy and where we continue to focus on cases that are brought to us of illegal aliens who are prior felons who re-enter and are known gang members, known drug dealers, domestic violence convictions. That’s where we focus and continue to focus on getting people off the streets, potentially, do prison time and then out of the country.

Supplies are available to heroin users at The Harm Reduction Action Center, which offers clean needles, training in the use of the overdose antidote Naloxone, and assistance getting into treatment. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun

CS: The drug consumption site, or supervised injection site, bill isn’t going to be resurrected this session at the Colorado legislature, but I wanted to ask about your letter to the City of Denver warning against the initiative. Have you had any more thoughts or conversations about that?

JD: I’ve had conversations with other U.S. attorneys around the country and there’s litigation on this in Philadelphia right now. When you read the statute, it clearly says that any facility that is used for people to gather and do illegal narcotics is a crime and that it’s also subject to seizure and civil action under federal law. I think a safe-injection site is a bad idea. Again, we don’t weigh in on specific legislation or city ordinances, but I felt like it was important to let people know that we take that very seriously and that the Department of Justice takes it very seriously. I felt like the right thing to do was, working with the DEA, to let the city and the state and the public know that we will treat that seriously and that federal law enforcement will engage if such a facility were opened. Just to be clear, there is a range of options we could respond with — and I don’t have an opinion yet on which of those options would be used or not used. It ranges from everything from asset seizure — seize the facility — to civil under the Controlled Substance Act all the way to criminal for individuals.

CS: Denver voters are going to decide soon about “magic mushrooms” and decriminalizing those. Are you going to send a similar letter on that?

JD: I haven’t thought about it that way. I can tell you it would have a similar reaction from federal law enforcement.

CS: Is there anything else you want the public to know about your goals and work?

JD: We’re certainly focused on public corruption here in the office. I’m a Colorado guy and I’ve always bragged about Colorado around the country to anyone who will listen about how we seem to be a much cleaner place. That’s not always the case, unfortunately, in some parts of the state. We certainly are always mindful and work with local law enforcement and our federal partners to root out any public corruption, at any level of government.

MORE: Federal criminal investigation alleged as lawsuit claiming bribery, bid rigging for Denver airport concessions contract is revived

CS: Are you guys doing anything with the allegations of corruption centering around the Colorado Convention Center expansion project?

JD: We’ve had conversations about that, but that’s about all I’ll say.