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Federal marijuana memo strikes a balance

Billy Williams, the U.S. attorney for Oregon, recently announced his office’s guidelines for cannabis enforcement in the state, and you have to give the prosecutor credit for consistency.

In a memo, Williams said his office would target the illicit marijuana market (with an eye toward pot overproduction and interstate trafficking), work to protect minors, and “prioritize enforcement of federal marijuana violations that involve or pose a substantial risk of violence.” (A copy of Williams’ memo is attached to the online version of this editorial.)

Williams issued the memo after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided to jettison an Obama-era policy (laid out in the so-called Cole memorandum) that largely tolerated marijuana in states, like Oregon, where the drug is legal.

Nothing in Williams’ memo should have come as a surprise to anyone who’s been following his reaction to Oregon’s continuing experiment with legal pot. And the memo strikes us as a canny attempt to find a response that balances the concerns of Sessions with Williams’ legitimate worries, all the while trying to leave adequate space for the state’s nascent marijuana industry.

The essential conflict here is this: Despite the decisions by Oregon voters to legalize marijuana for both medical and recreational use, it remains illegal at the federal level. The feds even continue to (ludicrously) classify marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the category reserved for substances with the highest potential for abuse and with no proven medical benefit.

As Williams, his predecessors in Oregon and his colleagues across the United States dealt with efforts to legalize pot, the Cole memo gave them some guidance.

The election of Donald Trump added uncertainty, since it wasn’t clear what Trump thought about the issue — but the appointment of Sessions, a longtime foe of legalization, seemed to tip the president’s hand. Sure enough, earlier this year, Sessions revoked the Cole memorandum. Williams’ memo came as a response to Sessions’ decision.

The Williams memo carried two overall messages: First, he said, his office has serious concerns over how marijuana legalization is playing out in Oregon.

But it also had this message: In general, legitimate marijuana businesses do not need to live in constant fear that federal agents will be knocking at the doors, although he declined to give the pot industry the assurance that Gov. Kate Brown sought, that he never would go after a legitimate marijuana business: “I will not make broad proclamations of blanket immunity from prosecution to those who violate federal law,” he wrote.

Still, it was enough to calm some of the fears of the state’s marijuana businesses: “I am not going to advise clients to shutter their businesses and I frankly don’t think this will change anyone’s view on investment,” Dave Kopilak, a Portland lawyer who advises cannabis businesses, told The Oregonian. “I don’t think this will have a chilling effect on the investment side of things. ... It could have been worse. It could have been better, but this is definitely down the middle of the road and a continuation of what we have done for years.”

With that said, though, it’s clear that marijuana overproduction continues to be a sore spot with Williams: “This will be a top priority until overproduction that feeds exportation of marijuana across Oregon’s borders stops,” he wrote. “Notably, since broader legalization took effect in 2015, large quantities of marijuana from Oregon have been seized in 30 states, most of which continue to prohibit marijuana.”

He also hit on a relatively newer point, one that was highlighted during a February marijuana summit he convened: enforcement of federal marijuana violations that have “serious adverse effects on federal land or natural resources, including water, air, and listed species.” Examples he gave include cultivating marijuana on federally managed lands, using unlawful pesticides or using large amounts of water for grow operations without authorization.

The Williams memo won’t be the last word on this topic, of course: Legalization efforts may finally bear fruit in Congress. Or the next U.S. attorney for Oregon could take a harder line. But taken on its own, the memo is a nice piece of work: It doesn’t send a deep chill across the state’s growing marijuana industry, but it doesn’t shy away from the serious issues that have emerged in the wake of legalization.

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