Attorney General Jeff Sessions Continues To Threaten State Marijuana Legalization Efforts

A letter, dated July 24, 2017, from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to Washington State Governor Jay Inslee and Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, indicates Session’s continued unwillingness to meaningfully engage in dialogue regarding state marijuana legalization efforts. Sessions was responding to prior correspondence from Governor Inslee and Attorney General Ferguson, including a February 15, 2017 letter, which requested that the Cole Memorandum remain in place and set  forth the factual evidence supporting their state’s legalization efforts. The letter explained that illegal trafficking of marijuana in Washington State has been displaced by the legal marijuana industry, which has in turn generated hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes. Because of marijuana legalization, law enforcement in Washington State is freed up to pursue more serious criminal activity.

In his recent response, however, Sessions fails to acknowledge the state’s regulatory success or offer to work with the state more closely on aligning state and federal law. Rather, Sessions quotes a single report from the Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), to raise concerns about marijuana legalization. These concerns include: under regulation of marijuana; diversion of marijuana to other states, increased driving under the influence, use of marijuana by minors, etc. Sessions ends his letter directing Washington State to “…advise as to how Washington plans to address findings in the Northwest HIDTA report, including efforts to ensure that all marijuana activity is compliant with state laws, to combat diversion of marijuana, to protect public health and safety and to prevent marijuana use by minors.”

The reality is that Washington State’s regulatory scheme is specifically designed to address these concerns and by all accounts (other than that of HIDTA), it is working. But, it is unlikely that any response from Washington State will dissuade Sessions from his crusade against marijuana. The most disquieting item in his letter, is Sessions’ statement that even if the Cole Memorandum stays in place, the Federal Justice Department would still be able to enforce federal marijuana laws regardless of state law.

Despite Sessions relentlessness on this issue, there is still room for optimism. There are numerous bipartisan efforts to protect state legalization efforts and even efforts to legalize marijuana at the federal level. Further, Sessions is part of an increasingly unpopular administration, which would have much to lose politically by going against the political will of the majority of Americans who favor marijuana legalization.

There is no doubt that this is an uncertain and unnerving time for everyone involved in the legal marijuana industry. But, in all likelihood Session’s threats and misguided efforts to escalate the federal war on drugs cannot turn back the tide of marijuana legalization by the states.

For more information on the regulation of marijuana businesses in Washington State, please contact Heather Wolf.