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Williams seeks more info on Oregon black market marijuana

U.S. Attorney Billy Williams Friday convened a closed-door 'marijuana summit' of elected officials, law enforcement and other stakeholders.

PHOTO BY JONATHAN HOUSE/PORTLAND TRIBUNE

PHOTO BY JONATHAN HOUSE/PORTLAND TRIBUNE

JONATHAN HOUSE/PORTLAND TRIBUNE - U.S. Attorney Billy Williams talks with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a visit to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services location in Northwest Portland Sept. 19, 2017.PORTLAND — Standing before a group of government officials, cops, and representatives of public health, banking, tribes, and the cannabis industry on Friday, Oregon's lead federal prosecutor renewed his call for more information about the state's illegal marijuana market.

In remarks ahead of his closed-door, invitation-only "marijuana summit" at the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. District Courthouse in Portland, U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams acknowledged that recent enforcement guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice created some "fear and anxiety."

The meeting of the minds is occurring nearly a month after news broke that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was rescinding the Cole memo, a policy under the previous administration's Justice Department that guided federal prosecutors in states that had legalized recreational marijuana to focus on prosecuting high-level criminal drug activity rather than businesses operating within state law.

Williams said that he needed a "factual baseline" of the extent of the illegal marijuana market and a "commitment" that the people gathered at the summit would continue to work together.

"This is an opportunity to engage with open minds," Williams said, "And I suspect there are folks in the room who have different views on marijuana since it's been legalized in Oregon, and my view of how to approach an issue that can be as divisive as this is to get in the same room and hear from each other."

Oregonians voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2014, a law that went into effect in July 2015.

Sessions gave U.S. Attorneys in states that have legalized recreational marijuana latitude to exercise their discretion on enforcement.

Williams has already made clear his concerns about what he characterizes as a substantial amount of Oregon-produced marijuana seeping into the black market and across state lines.

He reiterated those concerns Friday.

"Here's what I know, in terms of the landscape here in Oregon: we have an identifiable and formidable marijuana overproduction and diversion problem," Williams said. "That's a fact, and my responsibility is to work with my state partners to do something about it...and make no mistake about it, we're gonna do something about it, but that requires an effort to do this together, it requires transparency. The facts are gonna be what they are."

Williams said he had an "idea of" the issues surrounding marijuana in the state, but needed more hard data.

He added he was "heartened" by the burgeoning legal marijuana industry's interest in tamping down on the black market, and said attendees would not only hear from police and government groups, but also from the banking industry and landowners concerned about "livability" problems near outdoor marijuana grows.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown also spoke before the start of the gathering, saying she was committed to a safe and successful marijuana industry.

"Attorney Williams has assured my team that lawful Oregon businesses remain valued stakeholders in this conversation, and not targets of law enforcement," Brown said.

The governor was positive about the industry, claiming that Oregon was "righting the wrongs" of the War on Drugs, "harnessing the entrepreneurial spirit of our state," and protecting Oregon kids from marijuana.

The agenda for Friday's event included three blocks of invited presentations from various attendees.

According to a copy of the agenda, a period of questions and discussions was to follow each block of presentations.

Although Williams' and Brown's opening remarks were open to the press, they did not take questions, and reporters were not allowed to attend the substance of the summit.