COOS BAY — In a memorandum released Thursday afternoon, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed all U.S. Attorneys to disregard Obama-era marijuana policies and return to the rule of law enacted by congress in 1970.
In his memo Sessions said, “Prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutors. These principles require federal prosecutors deciding which cases to prosecute to weigh all relevant considerations, including federal law enforcement priorities set by the Attorney General.”
U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon, Billy J. Williams, responded to the memo by saying that the Attorney General is asking that U.S Attorneys use the reasoned exercise of discretion when pursuing prosecutions related to marijuana crimes.
“We will continue working with our federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement partners to pursue shared public safety objectives, with an emphasis on stemming the overproduction of marijuana and the diversion of marijuana out of state, dismantling criminal organizations and thwarting violent crime in our communities,” Williams said.
The decision, which rescinds previous marijuana prosecution policies, comes just days after the State of California began legal recreation sales of marijuana on Jan. 1.
The State of Oregon has had a lot of trouble recently with overproduction of cannabis leading to illegal exportation to other states.
Oregon, being one of the first states to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, reacted to the news in a different ways. Many Oregon lawmakers and governor have stood up and said they will defend the state’s cannabis laws.
“My staff and state agencies are working to evaluate reports of the Attorney General's decision and will fight to continue Oregon's commitment to a safe and prosperous recreational marijuana market,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said.
According to Brown Oregon’s marijuana industry has created over 19,000 jobs since it was legalized in 2015.
Senator Jeff Merkley said, “There is nothing to be gained from going back to an era when federal resources were wasted prosecuting nonviolent cannabis crimes. This decision will create massive uncertainty, hurt local businesses and tax revenue, and harm public safety by driving cannabis activity back into the more dangerous black market. The Justice Department should immediately reverse this misguided decision and honor Trump’s campaign commitment, and I will keep fighting to make this happen.”
While lawmakers were quick to defend Oregon state law, Coos County cannabis dispensaries seem to be uncertain, but ultimately unworried about the changes.
“I’m not worried. Everything we do here follows state laws, and everything is up to code. If something does happen to occur because of this we’ll just have to roll with it,” intake manager of the Coos Bay cannabis dispensary Way High 101 Aaron McKinley said.
Sara Lessar, owner of the hemp farm Oregon CO2 in Coos County is uncertain what this new memo might do to the marijuana industry, but she’s looking at it positively.
Lessar said, “The way I understand it the government just wants to be more involved in crimes like exporting and selling to children, which is not something I would necessarily be against, but we hear changes every day so it’s still uncertain.”
Most cannabis businesses are uncertain as to how this change will affect them, but many have faith in lawmakers to defend state laws. Several cannabis dispensaries could not be reached for comment.
“Kate Brown is on our side and that’s good to know,” McKinley said.
Marijuana revenue has been used in many ways throughout the state. The city of Coos Bay uses money gathered from pot sales to contribute to law enforcement programs like the South Coast Interagency Narcotics Team, which provides drug education and enforcement to neighborhoods in Coos, Curry and parts of Western Douglas Counties.
Coos County Sherriff Craig Zanni said, “This is currently a federal issue related to a change of federal prosecutor’s directives. We have and will continue to handle violations of the criminal statutes. As such, we have no information upon which we could draw a conclusions or policies related to this matter at this time.”
The Coos Bay and North Bend Police Departments could not be reached for comment on this issue by press time Friday.
The City of North Bend sees this as a federal issue that will have little effect on the city. Revenue that North Bend collects from cannabis sales goes into its general fund and accounts for around $40,000 of its $28 million budget.
“We use the money we get from marijuana sales to fund our school resource officer and to bring in a D.A.R.E officer to speak to the schools,” North Bend City Administrator Terence O’Connor said.
According to Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, the state of Oregon received over $60 million in state taxes from the recreational marijuana industry.
“At the Oregon Department of Justice we will continue to make sure Oregon’s marijuana industry thrives under our carefully considered state regulatory requirements. This is an industry that Oregonians have chosen — and one I will do everything within my legal authority to protect,” Rosenblum said.
In December, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden became the first U.S senator to co-sponsor New Jersey senator Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act, which would make marijuana legal at the federal level and incentivize states through federal funds to change their marijuana laws.
“Opening the door to go after legal marijuana businesses ignores the will of the majority of Americans and marks yet another socially unjust and economically backward scheme from this administration,” Wyden said.
The policy being rescinded is known as the Cole memorandum, and was enacted as a response to several states passing more lenient responses to non-violent marijuana crimes, and a few years later recreational use.
The Cole memorandum states, “The department’s guidance in this memorandum rests on its expectation that states and local governments that have enacted laws authorizing marijuana-related conduct will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that will address the threat that those state laws could pose to public safety, public health and other law enforcement interests.”