Trump administration targets legal pot
By Shaun Hall of the Daily Courier
Reaction in Oregon was fast and furious this morning to word that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has decided to let federal prosecutors in individual states decide how to enforce federal marijuana laws.
The move by the nation's top law enforcement officer likely is sure to add to confusion about whether it's OK to grow, buy or use marijuana in states such as Oregon and Colorado where the drug is legal.
It comes just after shops opened in California, launching what is expected to become the world's largest market for legal recreational marijuana and as polls show a solid majority of Americans believe the drug should be legal.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said the decision was extreme.
"Trump promised to let states set marijuana policies," Wyden said this morning in a written statement. "Now he's breaking that promise so Jeff Sessions can pursue his extremist anti-marijuana crusade."
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, said the decision was a step backward that would wind up harming, not helping, public safety.
"There is nothing to be gained from going back to an era when federal resources were wasted prosecuting nonviolent cannabis crimes," Merkley said in a statement. "This decision will create massive uncertainty, hurt local businesses and tax revenue, and harm public safety by driving cannabis activity back into the more dangerous black market."
U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Springfield whose district includes northern Josephine County, said the federal government should be concentrating on opioid abuse instead.
"Today's announcement by AG Sessions is a gross overreach of federal authority that will impair thousands of small businesses in Oregon and across the country while doing absolutely nothing to stem drug deaths in Oregon," DeFazio said in a statement.
"Our Justice Department ought to be focusing its resources on the opioid epidemic, not on attacking law-abiding citizens who are acting in accordance with their states' own regulations."
DeFazio said marijuana-related businesses across the country already faced challenges with federal taxation and access to banking services.
Oregon state Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, said he's waiting to hear how the top federal prosecutor in Oregon, Billy Williams, might prosecute marijuana crimes.
"Can't really say too much until the State's Attorney, Billy Williams, issues a statement," Wilson said.
"We know that today's statement reflects Attorney General Sessions' policies, but we don't know if they reflect the President's cannabis priorities. Sessions could be 'reeled in' in a minute if today's statement doesn't match with the President's priorities."
Wilson said the cannabis genie has left the bottle and there is no getting it back in.
"It will simply go back underground, precisely what we in Oregon have been fighting against," he said. "We always knew it would take years to perfect.
"The federal government has shown that they can't stamp it out. I can't imagine them pouring money into a renewed war on drugs, given past performance."
Wilson characterized the issue as "a referendum on state's rights."
Earlier this year, Williams told the Associated Press that overproduction of marijuana in Oregon and its diversion to other areas of the country was "very concerning."
Rob Bovett, legal counsel for the Association of Oregon Counties, said the news made it all the more important for Oregon legislators and voters to support the Southern Oregon Marijuana Initiative, a proposal that would allow counties in Southwest Oregon to tax production of marijuana and use proceeds to fund law enforcement.
"I would urge everyone to strongly encourage all stakeholders, especially the industry, and especially the Guild, to get behind this initiative," Bovett wrote in an email.
"The feds have repeatedly made it crystal clear to many Oregon officials, including me, that Oregon needs to do more than just pass more legislation to deal with the massive leakage of marijuana into the interstate black market, especially from Southern Oregon. Oregon needs to significantly beef up its law and code enforcement to address that issue."
Pete Gendron, president of the Oregon SunGrowers Guild, said he was answering inquiries this morning from people concerned about the announcement.
"Everybody's on pins and needles all of a sudden," Gendron said.
He termed the decision "disgusting," but said he was waiting for details.
"I would like to thank Jeff Sessions for bringing conservatives and liberals together in a way that nobody thought was possible," he said. "We'll see what happens."
U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, called the announcement "outrageous."
"Going against the majority of Americans — including a majority of Republican voters — who want the federal government to stay out of the way is perhaps one of the stupidest decisions the Attorney General has made," Blumenauer said in a written statement. "One wonders if Trump was consulted — it is Jeff Sessions, after all — because this would violate his campaign promise not to interfere with state marijuana laws.
"It's time for anyone who cares about this issue to mobilize and push back strongly against this decision."
Oregon voters three years ago approved Measure 91, which legalized recreational use and possession of limited quantities of marijuana by persons 21 and older.
Voters in Josephine County rejected the measure by a scant two votes, although the law took effect statewide. There are about 3,000 registered medical marijuana growers in the county and more than 100 farmers growing for the recreational market.
Medical marijuana was legalized under Oregon law in the late 1990s.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.