Ses­sions is not high on mar­i­juana

The at­tor­ney gen­eral has ‘se­ri­ous con­cerns’ about the ef­fects of le­gal­iza­tion. Should states be wor­ried?

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Rick An­der­son An­der­son is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

— With thou­sands of jobs and bil­lions of dol­lars at stake, it’s a burn­ing ques­tion: Is Atty. Gen. Jeff Ses­sions pre­par­ing to mess with voter-ap­proved sales of recre­ational mar­i­juana?

It’s a ques­tion of prime im­por­tance in six Western and two New Eng­land states that have le­gal­ized mar­i­juana use de­spite a fed­eral law of the land clas­si­fy­ing weed as a con­trolled, dan­ger­ous drug. And it ap­pears Colorado, Washington, Ore­gon, Cal­i­for­nia, Ne­vada, Alaska, Maine and Mas­sachusetts are likely to get a lot of com­pany.

Four­teen ad­di­tional states are plan­ning sim­i­lar recre­ational-sale ini­tia­tives, pos­si­bly this year. The rush to le­gal­ize mar­i­juana has been driven by the po­ten­tial tax and eco­nomic boosts of an in­dus­try al­ready gen­er­at­ing an es­ti­mated $6 bil­lion in an­nual sales. Twenty-nine states also have de­crim­i­nal­ized or le­gal­ized med­i­cal mar­i­juana.

Last year, while still a Repub­li­can se­na­tor from Alabama, Ses­sions made his op­po­si­tion clear: He called mar­i­juana dan­ger­ous and “not some­thing to laugh about.” The govern­ment needs “to send that mes­sage with clar­ity — that good peo­ple don’t smoke mar­i­juana.”

This year, as Pres­i­dent Trump’s new at­tor­ney gen­eral, Ses­sions said mar­i­juana’s ef­fect “is only slightly less aw­ful” than heroin’s. (Nearly 13,000 peo­ple died from heroin over­doses in 2015, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion, while no one has ever been recorded as fa­tally over­dos­ing on mar­i­juana, the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion says.)

So what does Ses­sions in­tend to do now?

He warned four gov­er­nors in let­ters re­leased last week that he had “se­ri­ous con­cerns” about the ef­fects of le­gal­iza­tion and sug­gested the states’ drug de­tente with the Jus­tice De­part­ment was at risk.

The let­ters were sent to Govs. Jay Inslee of Washington, John Hick­en­looper of Colorado, Kate Brown of Ore­gon (all Democrats) and Bill Walker of Alaska (a left­lean­ing in­de­pen­dent).

In the sim­i­lar-sound­ing let­ters, Ses­sions didn’t out­right tip his hand re­gard­ing a pos­si­ble fed­eral crack­down, leav­ing govern­ment and in­dus­try of­fi­cials to read the let­ters as tea leaves and in­ter­pret them dif­fer­ently. Some sup­port­ers of le­gal­ized weed are wor­ried, some en­cour­aged — just slightly.

Cit­ing a se­ries of re­cent fed­eral and state in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the im­pact of pot le­gal­iza­tion, Ses­sions listed re­peated break­downs in se­cu­rity, dis­tri­bu­tion and the con­trolled use of mar­i­juana in all four states.

For ex­am­ple, a 2017 state po­lice im­pact re­port on Ore­gon’s mar­ket, Ses­sions wrote, found that as much as two-thirds of mar­i­juana pro­duc­tion oc­curred in the black mar­ket; mar­i­juana-re­lated emer­gency room vis­its had soared by 55%; law en force­ment was un­able to keep pace with out-of-state cannabis di­ver­sion — pot grown legally in Ore­gon and then shipped out of state.

Gov. Brown’s Salem of­fice did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment, nor did the Juneau of­fice of Gov. Walker.

Ses­sions asked both Inslee and Hick­en­looper — us­ing the same lan­guage in separate let­ters — to prove that “all mar­i­juana ac­tiv­ity is com­pli­ant with state mar­i­juana laws,” and told them the im­pact re­ports raise “se­ri­ous ques­tions about the ef­fi­cacy of mar­i­juana ‘reg­u­la­tory struc­tures’ in your state.”

The at­tor­ney gen­eral was, in part, re­spond­ing to a let­ter sent to him in April cosigned by the four gov­er­nors urg­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion to con­tinue the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­proach to state mar­i­juana sales — reg­u­late but don’t raid. The gov­er­nors’ let­ter also asked “the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to en­gage with us be­fore em­bark­ing on any changes to reg­u­la­tory and en­force­ment sys­tems.”

Inslee, who is wor­ried about get­ting into a drug bat­tle with the other Washington, re­acted coolly to Ses­sions’ let­ter, say­ing it re­lied on “in­com­plete and un­re­li­able data that does not pro­vide the most ac­cu­rate snapshot of our ef­forts since the mar­ket­place opened in 2014.”

Washington state Atty. Gen. Bob Fer­gu­son said he was disappointed by Ses­sions’ let­ter, and “also disappointed that [Ses­sions] has yet to ac­cept my re­peated in­vi­ta­tions to meet in per­son to dis­cuss this crit­i­cal is­sue face to face.”

Colorado’s Hick­en­looper, how­ever, did meet re­cently with Ses­sions and told re­porters he didn’t think a crack­down was in the works, partly be­cause Ses­sions has too many other govern­ment balls to jug­gle.

Pa­trick Rosen­stiel, spokesman for the New Fed­er­al­ism Fund — a col­lec­tion of cannabis firms op­posed to fed­eral in­ter­ven­tion of the state sys­tems — saw an up­side to Ses­sions’ let­ters. The let­ters sug­gest a will­ing­ness to work with the states, he said in a state­ment to The Times, “but there is still a need for con­gres­sional ac­tion to pro­vide clar­ity for of­fi­cials at the lo­cal, state and fed­eral lev­els.”

Ses­sions had formed an anti-crime task force this year to study the le­gal mar­i­juana is­sue. Last week, cit­ing doc­u­ments ob­tained from the task force, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported the study group is rec­om­mend­ing the U.S. main­tain sales over­sight but keep its dis­tance.

Crit­ics spec­u­lated that was bad news for Ses­sions, since it would ef­fec­tively con­tinue the pol­icy in­sti­tuted un­der Pres­i­dent Obama, guided by stan­dards writ­ten by former Deputy Atty. Gen. James M. Cole. The 2013 Cole Memo, as the pro­vi­sions are re­ferred to, lists rules the states should fol­low to avoid fed­eral in­ter­ven­tion.

They in­clude pre­vent­ing dis­tri­bu­tion of cannabis to mi­nors; block­ing gangs, car­tels or criminal en­ter­prises from worm­ing into the state sys­tem; and pre­vent­ing mar­i­juana ship­ments to states that haven’t le­gal­ized such sales.

Ma­son Tvert, a co-direc­tor of Colorado’s 2012 le­gal mar­i­juana ini­tia­tive — the first in the na­tion — saw some promise in Ses­sions’ mis­sives. “He said he was look­ing to have a con­ver­sa­tion with the gov­er­nors to learn more about their sys­tems and the ways they can be ap­proved,” Tvert said in an in­ter­view.

“The let­ters did ap­pear to be a bit off base, and in sev­eral in­stances re­ferred to the way things were but are no longer. But more im­por­tantly, the let­ters did not tell the states they lack the author­ity to sell mar­i­juana.”

John Locher As­so­ci­ated Press

EIGHT STATES have le­gal­ized recre­ational mar­i­juana. Four­teen other states are plan­ning sim­i­lar ini­tia­tives.

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