Williams has ‘significant concerns’ about state’s regulation of pot

Marijuana plants grow in a high tunnel at a farm near McMinnville, Ore. U.S. Attorney Billy Williams said Friday that he has serious concerns about Oregon's ability to regulate marijuana.

Capital Bureau

SALEM — U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams says he has “significant concerns” about the state’s ability to tamp down on illegal marijuana activity.

Williams, through an op-ed in The Oregonian Friday, offered a detailed perspective on Oregon’s marijuana landscape for the first time since Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded Obama-era DOJ policies on the drug last week and gave local prosecutors discretion to pursue cases within the state-regulated industry.

It’s not a favorable view: Williams was blunt about what he called Oregon’s “massive marijuana overproduction problem.”

Sixteen states have reported seizures of marijuana from Oregon, and federal agents and port police have seized more than $1 million in cash connected with marijuana transactions passing through the Portland airport in the last six months, Williams said. And postal agents seized 2,644 pounds of marijuana in outbound mail and more than $1.2 million in cash in 2017.

Williams, through a spokesman, declined a request for an interview with the EO/Pamplin Capital Bureau.

But in his op-ed Williams said that he wants to host a summit among law enforcement and other groups to share information about the state’s problems to “inform our federal enforcement strategy.”

Williams claims that producers can sell marijuana illegally for more money in other states, and the profit incentive drives more criminal activity in Oregon.

“This lucrative supply attracts cartels and other criminal networks into Oregon and in turn brings money laundering, violence, and environmental degradation,” Williams wrote.

Williams also criticized a lack of information from the state, in particular an incomplete report from the Oregon State Police on a slew of marijuana-related public safety topics.

A draft version of that report obtained by The Oregonian in March, detailed significant problems with the state’s regulatory system, “leakage” of Oregon marijuana into the illicit market and diversion of the product across state lines.

OSP was adamant the draft and incomplete. But nearly a year later, it still hasn’t been finished.

A spokesman for OSP did not respond to an inquiry regarding Williams’ comments.

Meanwhile, the OSP analyst working on the report has since left the agency for the Oregon-Idaho High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a program that supports “collaborative drug control efforts” among law enforcement agencies in the two states.

Chris Gibson, the Oregon-Idaho HIDTA executive director, said that he hoped the report would be done by the end of 2018.

The Oregon State Police are active in drug enforcement. For example, OSP seized 3,687 pounds of marijuana and over 1,500 marijuana plants in 2017, Oregon State Police Lt. Gregg Withers, who works in the agency’s drug enforcement section, said.

The Legislature has taken steps to close regulatory gaps. In the 2017 session, for example, OSP was allotted seven additional drug detective positions.

And although state officials have touted the tax dollars and jobs created by the state’s legal marijuana program, Williams said that the tax dollars going to public safety may not be enough. State police got $12.75 million out of the $108.6 million the state collected in pot tax revenues between January 2016 and August 2017.

“While state officials have allocated a portion of marijuana tax revenues to public safety organizations including the Oregon State Police, the net effect on enforcement remains an open question,” Williams wrote.

Data released this week by Oregon Liquor Control Commission also suggests that there are gaps in what would seem to be simple aspects of compliance.

On Jan. 10, the agency reported that 16 out of 66 pot shops surveyed in a recent OLCC sting failed to check that customers were 21 or older, the age requirement to buy marijuana in Oregon.

Williams wants to convene law enforcement and other groups to confront the problems.

“We need to have people in the room who can identify their interest, what the issues are, and work together to try and find some solutions,” Williams told Oregon Public Broadcasting on Friday. “...Somebody needs to step up and take a hard look at where we’re at thus far.”

Oregon officials were quick to defend the state’s recreational and medical marijuana programs when Sessions announced his stance last week. But the office of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment on Williams’ comments.

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