UPDATE (3:30 p.m. PST) – Lawmakers in the Pacific Northwest said they’ll defend state cannabis laws after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to lift an Obama-era policy that took a hands-off approach to federal enforcement.
In rescinding the Cole Memorandum, which is widely understood to have opened the door for legalized cannabis across the country, Sessions plans to let federal prosecutors decide how aggressively to enforce federal cannabis laws in places where it is legal.
Yet the prosecutors Sessions has tasked with deciding what that regulation will look like for the region’s marijuana industry haven’t said much about how they plan to interpret and execute those laws, leaving shop owners in a haze over state and federal industry rules.
“Right now there’s just a lot of uncertainty, a lot of anxiety,” said Ramsey Hamide, the co-owner of Main Street Marijuana in Vancouver, the top-selling cannabis shop in Washington.
“That’s going to take some time to digest exactly how that’s going to impact us day-to-day.”
Hamide says the decision could temporarily impact investment in the cannabis industry, though he believes larger stores like his won’t immediately be affected. Hamide is optimistic that reworking federal policies could bring some much-needed clarity to the industry. In response to Sessions’ decision, Oregon and Western Washington’s federal prosecutors did not say how their state’s marijuana laws would be immediately impacted.
“We will continue working with our federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement partners to pursue shared public safety objectives, with an emphasis on stemming the overproduction of marijuana and the diversion of marijuana out of state, dismantling criminal organizations and thwarting violent crime in our communities,” Oregon’s federal prosecutor Billy J. Williams said.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said at a news conference Thursday afternoon Sessions’ memo was “literally ripping the rug out from underneath the marijuana industry.”
Brown said she spoke to Williams Thursday morning and hoped to get clarity from him about the memo in the next 48 hours.
Western Washington U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes said she will continue to prosecute cases involving organized crime, violent threats and financial crimes related to marijuana, though she didn’t speak specifically about how marijuana enforcement would change.
State lawmakers in Oregon and Washington have raised concern over Sessions’ decision and the precedent it sets for states’ rights violations, citing voter-approved legalization efforts.
“In Washington state we have put in place a system in place that adheres to what we pledged to the people of Washington and the federal government; it’s well regulated, keeps criminal elements out, keeps pot out of the hands of kids and tracks it all carefully enough to clamp down on cross-border leakage,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement.
“We are going to keep doing that and overseeing the well-regulated market that Washington voters approved,” Inslee said.
Brown echoed Inslee, saying in a statement released before the news conference that voters were clear when they decided to legalize marijuana in Oregon and “the federal government should not stand in the way of the will of Oregonians.”
“My staff and state agencies are working to evaluate reports of the Attorney General’s decision and will fight to continue Oregon’s commitment to a safe and prosperous recreational marijuana market,” Brown said.
Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer said Sessions’ decision violates President Donald Trump’s campaign promise not to interfere with state cannabis laws. Yet Blumenauer said he’s optimistic that Sessions’ decision will only fuel the fire of efforts to legalize marijuana at the federal level.
“Ironically, this may be the catalyst that brings about the reform we all know needs to happen to make federal policies consistent with what voters are acting on all over the country,” said Blumenauer, a fierce proponent of marijuana legalization.
Oregon’s senior Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden co-sponsored the Marijuana Justice Act last month, which would make marijuana legal at the federal level.
“Trump promised to let states set their own marijuana policies. Now he’s breaking that promise so Jeff Sessions can pursue his extremist anti-marijuana crusade,” Wyden said in a statement.
Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley called Sessions’ move a “destructive decision” and a “huge step backwards.”
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said she plans to make sure the Oregon Department of Justice continues to ensure the state’s marijuana industry thrives.
Molly Solomon contributed to this report.