America is headed toward legal pot

Containers filled with marijuana at Sweet Relief in Astoria.

As President Donald Trump mulls his next choice for U.S. attorney general, we hope he chooses someone with a realistic view of legalized marijuana in Oregon and other states.

Billy Williams, the U.S. attorney for Oregon, will be a key player in the attorney general’s future decisions. Williams will chair the Attorney General’s Marijuana Working Group. His appointment was announced by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on the same day that Trump ousted Jeff Sessions as attorney general.

Although it’s not why Trump dumped him, Sessions vehemently opposed marijuana use. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but the Obama administration had told federal agencies to back off enforcement in states that legalized its use. Sessions rescinded that directive.

Sessions is now gone, recreational use of marijuana has been legalized in 10 states and medical marijuana in 33 states, and Trump has signaled he might support lighter federal enforcement.

Williams has been a vocal critic of Oregon’s approach to legal cannabis. His office has prosecuted people who tried to ship marijuana out of Oregon, which is illegal under state law as well as federal law. He criticizes Oregon’s oversupply of legal marijuana, which he contends has re-fueled the black market. He says the state’s cannabis regulations and recordkeeping have been inadequate.

His concerns are legitimate. But, like it or not, legal marijuana is a reality and it is past time for the U.S. Department of Justice to recognize that.

It is ludicrous that the federal government still classifies marijuana in the same category of dangerous drugs as heroin and LSD, and that Congress has been loath to support federal research into the medicinal uses of cannabis.

It is disruptive to the economy that federal law blocks legal cannabis businesses in Oregon and other states from many of the banks, credit-card processing and other financial avenues that other legitimate businesses use. For financial institutions that do handle marijuana accounts, the resulting paperwork can be almost prohibitively expensive.

Cannabis remains largely a cash-and-carry business — from buyer purchases to payment of taxes — and those large amounts of cash make businesses and tax collectors a target for thieves. Other businesses also are wary of working with cannabis firms for fear that federal law enforcement will prosecute them for “aiding, abetting and conspiring” in marijuana activities.

The cannabis industry in Oregon is maturing. Because the market is saturated with cannabis and shops selling it, prices have fallen by half — or more — and outlets gradually are consolidating. Business experts say these consolidations are necessary if local ownership is to remain viable when marijuana is legalized nationally and tobacco firms and other multinational corporations jump into the market.

America is headed that way. Almost two-thirds of Americans support legalizing marijuana.

In the Nov. 6 election, the rural Oregon towns of Ontario, Joseph, Klamath Falls, Gates, Sumpter and Clatskanie either rejected or rescinded prohibitions against selling recreational marijuana. Numerous other cities and counties voted to tax marijuana sales. Nationally, Michigan became the first Midwestern state to legalize recreational marijuana. In the South, Missouri approved medical marijuana.

Dozens of pot bills will be introduced in Congress next year, some with bipartisan support. During the next decade, the overwhelming majority of states are projected to have some form of legalized marijuana.

Yet the U.S. Department of Justice remains woefully behind the times.

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