OLYMPIA — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee berated U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration Thursday for changing the Justice Department’s hands-off attitude toward the state’s marijuana trade.
Inslee said Washington won’t be “intimidated” and will oppose federal intervention.
“We should all be dedicated to that uproar of resistance on this wrong-headed, backward, antediluvian, below the Mason-Dixon line (policy) by Jeff Sessions,” Inslee said.
Inslee spoke at a forum previewing the 2018 legislation session shortly after Sessions, a former Alabama senator, issued a memo on federal enforcement of marijuana laws. The memo withdrew guidance issued by the Obama administration that gave states a green light to legalize marijuana cultivation and recreational use.
Besides Washington, five states — Oregon, California, Nevada, Alaska and Colorado — have approved the recreational use of marijuana. Massachusetts and Maine have also approved it but those laws have not gone into effect. Those states and 21 others plus Washington, D.C., have approved marijuana use for medical purposes.
The state-supervised cultivation of hemp, also a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act, was authorized by Congress in the 2014 Farm Bill. Marijuana has not received such congressional approval. Washington and the other states proceeded with marijuana based on a 2013 memo by then-Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole. The memo admonished states to keep marijuana away from children, prevent interstate trafficking and to not let marijuana become a cover for illegal drug or lead to more impaired driving and other health problems.
Sessions rescinded the Cole memo in what a Justice Department statement called a “return to the rule of law.”
Sessions did not order specific enforcement actions, but he instructed U.S. attorneys to follow standard guidelines, prioritizing serious crimes that cumulatively harm a community.
Washington growers sold $67.6 million worth of marijuana in a 12-month period that ended June 30, according to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. A 37 percent sales tax on retail sales generated $314.8 million.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson joined Inslee at the press event. Ferguson said his office had been anticipating a change in federal enforcement policy since Sessions became attorney general.
“It’s not exactly a shock, right?” he said.
He said his office was prepared to defend Washington’s marijuana law, though he noted that for now there was no specific enforcement action to oppose.
The Washington Farm Bureau has taken the position that it won’t advocate for marijuana because it is a federally controlled substance. The organization does support developing a hemp industry within federal law.
The Washington Department of Agriculture has worked to keep its hemp program within federal law and obtained a permit last year from the Drug Enforcement Administration to import hemp seeds.
On marijuana, the Justice Department has periodically since 2009 issued guidance suggesting a relaxed attitude toward marijuana, but reserving the right to aggressively prosecute drug laws.
“Now we have Jeff Sessions coming in who wants to upset the apple cart of a very successful program for ideological reasons,” Inslee said.