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Sessions has 'serious questions' about Oregon's pot market

In a letter to Gov. Kate Brown, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reiterated DOJ's authority to enforce federal marijuana laws.

KEVIN HARDEN/PORTLAND TRIBUNE - MarijuanaSALEM — U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has alleged that Oregon may be violating the Obama administration's requirements to keep marijuana out of the illicit market.

Sessions sent a letter to Gov. Kate Brown July 24 reiterating the Department of Justice's authority to enforce the federal ban on marijuana and highlighting ways in which Oregon may have failed to comply with the "Cole memo."

The memo, issued in 2013, represents the Obama administration's policy not to prosecute the state legalized market provided that the state has a robust regulatory system that prevents leakage of the drug into the illicit market. Thus far the Trump administration has honored the policy.

The attorney general stated that an Oregon State Police report in January raised "serious questions about the efficacy of marijuana 'regulatory structures'" in the state. He added that the Cole memo does not preclude DOJ from investigating or prosecuting violations of the federal prohibition.

"Congress has determined that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a crime," Sessions wrote. "The Department remains committed to enforcing the Controlled Substances Act in a manner that efficiently applies our resources to address the most significant threats to public health and safety."

Sessions, a longtime marijuana foe, did not specify how he intended to act on his authority to enforce the ban. Lauren Ehrsam, a DOJ spokeswoman, declined further comment on the purpose of the letter and the attorney general's plans to address the concerns outlined in the letter.

As of 5 p.m. Tuesdsay, Gov. Kate Brown's office had not responded to multiple messages seeking comment on the letter.

Sessions wrote almost identical letters to the governors of Washington and Colorado, according to a report by Slate Monday, Aug. 7. Oregon, Washington and Colorado represent only three of the eight states that have legalized pot for recreational use, raising the question whether the federal government plans to prioritize its resources toward cracking down on the industry in those three states.

Only about 30 percent of marijuana market activity in Oregon complies with state regulation, according the OSP report.

"There is 'pervasive illicit cannabis cultivation in the state … (and) a strong indication that surplus cannabis is not discarded, but is in fact trafficked out-of-state and sold for a huge profit margin,'" Sessions wrote, quoting the report.

The cost and rate of burn victims from marijuana oil extraction labs and marijuana-related emergency room visits have spiked since legalization, he stated.

Meanwhile, under-age users represent a majority of cannabis impairment cases on Oregon roadways, according to drug recognition data from 2013 to 2015, he wrote.

About 63 percent of Oregon adults don't know whether it's legal to drive after using pot, he added.

A federal task force convened to devise a legal strategy to enforce the federal ban on cannabis concluded that DOJ should continue the policy of the Obama Administration, according to an Aug. 3 report by the Associated Press.

The Oregon Legislature earlier this year passed several laws aimed at preventing product leakage into the illegal market and fortifying the industry against federal backlash. For instance, one new law requires medical cannabis producers undergo the same stringent seed-to-sale tracking of products that the recreational industry has been subject to since legal recreational sales began in 2015. Another law orders the creation of a state hotline where authorities can verify whether a grow site is registered or licensed with the local and state government.

"Anything we can do to cut off leakage … would put us in a stronger position" with the federal government, Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, co-chairwoman of the legislative marijuana regulation committee, said in May.

Oregon's legal marijuana industry sustains 12,500 jobs and yields a projected $105 million in annual recreational marijuana tax revenue, used to support public education and services, according to a white paper by Rep. Ann Lininger, D-Lake Oswego, who served on the marijuana regulation committee until July. Lininger has resigned from the Legislature, effective Aug. 15, and is set to be sworn in as a Clackamas County Circuit Court judge Aug. 28.

Twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories of Guam and Puerto Rico allow cannabis use for medical conditions. Another 17 states permit limited use of cannabidiol, or CBD, the non-psychoactive element in marijuana.

Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau
email: pachen@portlandtribune.com
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