Almost an entire continent separates the states of Washington and Alabama, and on some political subjects the philosophical gap may be even wider. For the most part, what happens in those states stays in those states, but that may change — emphasis on the “may” — on the issue of marijuana enforcement, now that former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions is serving as U.S. attorney general under the Trump administration.

Sessions is a longtime foe of loosening marijuana laws; last year he famously said, “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Earlier this month he fired a warning shot to the governors of Washington and three other states — Colorado, Oregon and Alaska — that have legalized the production, sale and use of recreational marijuana. In the letter, Sessions claimed there were breakdowns in security, distribution and controlled use of pot in the four states.

The letter raised concerns among marijuana proponents that the live-and-let-live approach of the Obama administration, which called for allowing the state-regulated systems as long as the states enforced laws that ban sale to minors and keep pot from being transported across state lines. But despite an ominous tone, the Sessions letter didn’t spell out any specific changes.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson took quick issue with the letter, saying a specific concern that Sessions cited, a lack of medical marijuana regulations that led to a growth in the black market, were dealt with when the Legislature merged the recreational and medical systems in 2016. Inslee and Ferguson point to state Department of Health surveys that conclude marijuana use by minors has not increased in Washington since legalization. A study in the American Journal of Public Health found rates of auto-crash fatalities in Washington and Colorado were no higher than those in similar states without legalized pot.

In the meantime, legal marijuana has taken its place in the economy of Washington state and even in Yakima County, where 58 percent of the voters opposed Initiative 502, the legalization measure that the state’s voters approved in 2012. The state realized $168 million in cannabis excise taxes in 2016. In Union Gap, the pot tax money went to youth programs and the skateboarding facility at Cahalan Park. The city of Yakima, which legalized pot stores last year, expects about $124,000 in tax revenue per year, which city officials say will go to public safety.

At least for now, the states have supporting evidence from Sessions’ own Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, a group of prosecutors and federal law enforcement officials. That group is recommending that the Justice Department continue to study the Obama administration’s approach.

So ... what is this state to do? It appears continuing to enforce the public safety provisions of Initiative 502 — banning sales to minors, keeping buffer zones from schools and churches, among others — would be well in order. Publicity about the state law should reiterate that nonresidents can come here and buy marijuana, but only if they consume it here in private settings. Carrying it across state lines remains a felony under federal law, even if it is transported from Washington to Oregon — both states where it is legal. Law enforcement needs to remain vigilant about illegal grows on the millions of acres of public land in this state, and continue work to keep it out of the black market.

The tough talk out of Washington, D.C., may be more rhetoric than reality. But amid the glowering glare of the U.S. attorney general, those involved in this state’s expanding marijuana business would do well to follow the letter and intent of the law that has made their trade legal.

News Moderator: Ron Strider 420 MAGAZINE ®
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