Washington state officials promised to defend the state’s marijuana laws, as news broke that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had rescinded Justice Department policies under President Obama that allowed state-sanctioned marijuana markets to sprout up across the country.
In a 2013 memo, the Obama administration announced it would not prevent states from legalizing marijuana, so long as states prevented distribution to minors; kept marijuana revenue from cartels and gangs; impeded pot from being moved to other states; and prevented drugged driving, among other requirements.
Previously, the Obama administration published a similar memo in 2009 directing U.S. Attorneys to take a hands-off approach to patients in compliance with state medical marijuana systems.
Washington state voters approved an initiative legalizing recreational marijuana in November 2012. The first legal recreational pot stores opened in July 2014.
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“We will use every single power in our disposal to preserve and protect the mission statement Washington State voters gave us,” Inslee said, boasting that the state’s system was “arguably one of the best-regulated and disciplined markets” for marijuana.
“We have been very successful making sure kids are not having success getting marijuana from state stores … we have probably the best background check” for marijuana business owners, Inslee said.
Inslee said state data on youth marijuana usage and access shows legalization has been a successful policy and the Trump administration was seeking to thwart Washington’s progress over ideological reasons.
“The current attorney general has had this in his bonnet for decades and he can’t get it out of his bonnet,” Gov. Inslee said. “The fears of Jeff Sessions have not been realized.”
Washington Attorney General spoke later, saying Sessions’ action was “deeply disappointing” but also unclear and leaving room for uncertainty.
“I understand he’s removed the Cole memo and Ogden memo,” Ferguson said, referring to the Obama-era policies.
“He wasn’t announcing anything broader than that. … It leaves wide open: What exactly does he mean by doing this?”
While Ferguson said he didn’t know whether Washington would take any legal steps against Sessions’ action, his office has spent years preparing.
“Take my word for it, but my legal team has been very focused on this issue from the day marijuana was legalized in Washington state five years ago,” Ferguson said, adding later: “Our legal arguments have been crafted, we are prepared.”
Last summer, Sessions sent a letter to Inslee and Ferguson, expressing concerns over the state marijuana system’s regulatory framework.
State Sen. Ann Rivers, a Republican leader on marijuana policy, who joined Inslee and Ferguson for the bipartisan news conference Thursday, hardly parsed words in addressing Sessions’ criticism of the state system.
“The comments made by Attorney General Sessions … were based on incorrect on information, I would dare say, misguided. It’s my hope we will have an opportunity to learn in greater detail what he has on his mind,” Rivers said. “I believe that, working together, we can come up with something that will be successful for both the feds and the state.”
With the 2013 memo no longer in effect, Sessions has reportedly decided to allow the U.S. Attorneys in the districts where marijuana is legal to decide how aggressively to enforce federal drug laws, which classify pot in the same category of illicit drugs as heroin.
That may not be a big issue in Western Washington, where acting U.S. Attorney Annette Hayes runs the office. She was appointed by federal judges in the district to fill a vacuum left by Jenny Durkan’s departure. Durkan recently was elected mayor of Seattle. Hayes was Durkan’s first assistant in the office and a trusted confidante. Her appointment by the judges makes her the permanent U.S. Attorney for now; however, President Trump could nominate her replacement at any time.
East of the mountains – where a number of large marijuana growers have set up shop — the Eastern District of Washington has an interim U.S. Attorney, Joseph Harrington, while it awaits a permanent appointment to be nominated by President Trump and sent to the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate.
In a news release, Hayes said her office will continue to focus on prosecuting cases involving “organized crime, violent and gun threats, and financial crimes related to marijuana.”
“Today the Attorney General reiterated his confidence in the basic principles that guide the discretion of all U.S. Attorneys around the country, and directed that those principles shepherd enforcement of federal law regarding marijuana. He also emphasized his belief that U.S. Attorneys are in the best position to address public safety in their districts, and address the crime control problems that are pressing in their communities. Those principles have always been at the core of what the United States Attorney’s Office for Western Washington has done,” she said in a news release.
As the region’s politicians drew out battle lines on legalization, people in the marijuana industry were scrambling to figure out what the news might mean for their livelihoods.
Attorney Robert McVay, who has worked for several years on marijuana issues, said calls, text messages and emails have been flooding in from nervous clients in the industry.
“People are mainly concerned about the uncertainty,” McVay said. “We’re not sure we’re going to see an updated or new memorandum coming out from the Justice Department, or whether it would be a different policy in each judicial district. I think we’ll know more if and when Sessions actually makes a public statement about this.”
McVay said he was also watching Congress, noting that Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican, had tweeted his opposition toward new marijuana policy change.
“Marijuana — in states that it’s legal … is pretty popular. You’re going to have congressmen and senators on both sides of the aisle react poorly to this news. We’ll see what kind of pressure they put on the Department of Justice,” McVay said.
He said investors in marijuana businesses are watching closely to see if their property could be at risk.
“The Department of Justice could certainly have an argument — any piece of real estate where marijuana activity has taken place … the government could enforce against it and seize it,” he said. “People are worried about Sessions’ office and the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) making an example of one or two or three businesses out there.”