Law Enforcement Weighs How To Police Marijuana With Federal Pressure

U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon Billy J. Williams, left, speaks at a marijuana summit in Portland, Oregon, Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, as Oregon Gov. Kate Brown sits at right. CREDIT: DON RYAN
U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon Billy J. Williams, left, speaks at a marijuana summit in Portland, Oregon, Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, as Oregon Gov. Kate Brown sits at right. CREDIT: DON RYAN

Law enforcement from around country convened in downtown Portland, Oregon, last week with one goal in mind: figure out how to regulate cannabis during the Trump administration.

U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams hosted the meeting. It included the leaders of state agencies, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and seven U.S. attorneys from states such as Washington, Colorado, Idaho, California and Montana.

Williams opened the meeting by stating that there’s more cannabis being produced in Oregon than can be legally consumed.

“And make no mistake about it, we’re going to do something about it,” he said, during the summit’s opening remarks.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has long been an outspoken opponent of marijuana. Since taking over the U.S. Department of Justice, many have speculated whether — or how — Sessions would direct federal law enforcement officials to police cannabis.

Last month, Sessions scrapped the Obama-era Cole Memo, a directive that created a hands-off approach to federal law enforcement in states with legal recreational cannabis. That move has created uncertainty in states like Oregon and Washington.

Sessions’ change in federal policy opened the door for individual U.S. attorneys to crack down on cannabis, if they chose.

Last week’s marijuana summit in Portland provided clues about where they might take action.

In Oregon, Williams appears poised to target those growers and businesses operating outside the state’s legal market.

“Here’s what I know, in terms of the landscape here in Oregon … we have an identifiable and formidable marijuana over-production and diversion problem. That’s the fact,” Williams said. “And my responsibly is to work with our state partners to do something about it.”

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who attended the cannabis summit, said the industry provides jobs in rural parts of the state. The governor said she’s committed to making sure Oregon has a “successful cannabis industry.”

“Attorney Williams has assured my team that lawful Oregon businesses remain valued stakeholders in this conversation and not targets of law enforcement,” Brown said in prepared remarks.

In January, California joined the rest of the West Coast with a legal recreational marijuana market. Nine states have legalized recreational cannabis, so far. All told, 30 states plus the District of Columbia allow for some marijuana use, despite a federal ban on the drug.

“I did not get the feeling — at least from the United State attorneys that spoke or participated — that any of them were intent on shutting down the regulated industries in their state,” said Amy Margolis, executive director of the Oregon Cannabis Association, which lobbies in support of the legal market.

Margolis participated in the marijuana summit in Portland.

 “Instead, they were intent on wrapping their arms around … how to create some cohesive policy that they might all follow,” she said.

Margolis said Williams is right to take a hard look at the unregulated parts of the industry. She said it’s no secret that Oregon has long grown marijuana that’s shipped illegally across the country.

“And I think to say otherwise would be disingenuous,” Margolis said.

The unregulated market hurts businesses that are paying taxes and are trying to operate legally, she said.

“That’s where law enforcement — if they’re going to focus their energy somewhere — that’s really where they should be focusing their energy,” Margolis said.

Transporting cannabis across state lines is illegal under federal law. 

“We had a huge increase, just in the last year,” said Idaho State Police Sgt. Jason Cagle.

Cagle said last year was a record year for marijuana seizures in Idaho, which has not legalized cannabis. He said most of that product came from the Oregon, Washington and California.

“We had almost 1,400 pounds of marijuana seized, which is more than the three years prior combined,” he said.

Cagle said that doesn’t include small amounts of marijuana that were likely purchased legally at a dispensary and brought into the state. Rather, he said, it’s large sales from people operating outside the law.

“Those are large seizures those aren’t personal use seizures,” Cagle said. “Those are going to be coming from black market or out the back door of dispensaries.”

As federal prosecutors weigh how to tackle marijuana, they’re also faced with the reality of finite resources.

The Department of Justice also prioritized reducing violent crime and dealing with the opioid epidemic, both problems that critics of Sessions argue are more urgent than cracking down on cannabis.

Copyright 2018 Oregon Public Broadcasting

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