Locals in the marijuana industry were jolted Thursday when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed prosecutors to more aggressively enforce federal drug laws.
The announcement reversed a President Barack Obama-era memo, written by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, discouraging prosecutors from pursuing marijuana-related charges in states — including Oregon and Washington — where it has been legalized.
It came days after California became the sixth and largest state so far to legalize the drug for recreational use.
“I feel at this moment there’s still just a lot of questions to be asked,” said Oscar Nelson, co-owner of Sweet Relief Natural Medicine.
Opened in 2013, Sweet Relief was Clatsop County’s first medical marijuana dispensary and started selling to recreational customers with others in October 2015.
But the emerging pot industry is rooted in shaky legal ground, complicating regulatory, financial and advertising issues. State laws that legalize marijuana are in conflict with federal law, which classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, the same category as heroin and LSD.
Nelson made calls to the offices of Gov. Kate Brown and Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, but cautioned patience.
“Until I get more information, this is just not something to react to,” he said. “I feel that this is just part of this industry, and I feel hopeful that logic will prevail.”
Sessions said he would let federal prosecutors in each state decide where they would focus their enforcement actions, but states that have legalized marijuana are not exempt from federal drug laws.
However, it’s not clear that the announcement will lead to drastic changes in the way that federal officials in Oregon handle pot.
Billy Williams, the U.S. attorney for Oregon, released a statement saying he and his peers have been directed to use reasoned discretion in prosecuting marijuana-related crimes.
“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,” he said.
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said the state Department of Justice would “continue to make sure Oregon’s marijuana industry thrives under our carefully considered state regulatory requirements.”
Rosenblum, who characterized Sessions’ decision as overreach, made no indication of specific next steps other than she “valued her working relationship” with Williams and looked forward to working with him.
“This is an industry that Oregonians have chosen — and one I will do everything in my legal authority to protect,” Rosenblum said.
The Oregon State Police a year ago released an analysis of the state’s compliance with the Cole memo in light of legalization. The analysis concluded that supply vastly outstrips demand, and that Oregon supplies much of the black market marijuana around the U.S.
While consumers and people selling recreational marijuana likely don’t need to worry about federal authorities knocking down their doors, the report bears some looking at, Marquis said.
“I think Brown and Oregon won’t be able to be so casual with this,” he said.
Oregon’s congressional delegation and state political leaders were swift in their condemnation of Session’s announcement, arguing the Trump administration is being hypocritical on a common Republican refrain of states’ rights and threatening to disrupt a burgeoning industry.
Oregon collected more than $108 million in taxes from marijuana sales between January 2016 and August. In May, the state Employment Department estimated more than 3,500 people employed in marijuana-related businesses, with wages nearing $23 million. The Oregon Health Authority estimated that dispensaries in 2016 had $79.4 million in sales to medical marijuana cardholders and $215.3 million to recreational customers.
Claire Withycombe reported from the Capital Bureau in Salem.