Billy Williams, the U.S. Attorney General for Oregon, said he’ll do what he can to enforce federal laws regarding growing marijuana, but admits his finite resources will limit his office from pursuing all but five priorities he outlined in a May 18 announcement.
Those will include interstate trafficking of marijuana, working with local and state agencies to address the issue, protecting children and the environment and combating organized crime.
The federal government still considers marijuana to be a Schedule 1 drug — alongside heroin and LSD — with no medical value whatsoever. But as more states have legalized medical and recreational uses of the weed, it’s put them in conflict with federal law that, under the Obama administration was loosened.
On Jan. 4, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded previous Justice Department guidance related to federal laws and marijuana, leaving states trying to figure out how to comply.
Views still differ
Sessions’ announcement prompted Williams to hold a summit in February with more than 130 people interested in federal involvement in the voter-approved state laws.
“The views were often divergent,” Williams said of those at the summit. “First there is urgent need for more comprehensive and accurate data on the effect of marijuana production and distribution in Oregon.”
Second, there are too few resources to enforce and oversee the regulations, he said.
“Third, there can be no doubt there is significant overproduction of marijuana in Oregon,” Williams said. “A thriving black market is exporting marijuana across the country, including to states that have not legalized marijuana under their state laws.”
Curry County has no marijuana grows. But other counties, notably Josephine and Jackson, have reported illegal grows far outnumber the legal ones, creating anxiety among residents who see armed guards stationed at the farms, reports of vans hauling out large crops and environmental degradation at sites where water is illegally siphoned and fertilizers overused, news reports from those counties have said.
Marijuana grown in Oregon has found its way to about 30 states where it is not yet legal, Williams said.
“Since broader legalization took effect in 2015, large quantities of marijuana from Oregon have been seized (in other states),” Williams said. “That will be a top priority until overproduction that feeds exports of marijuana across Oregon’s borders stops.”
It’s the federal vs. state law issue, however, that has placed state attorneys general in difficult situations.
“I will not make broad proclamations of blanket immunity from prosecution to those who violate federal law,” Williams said in a four-page notice. “I swore to uphold the rule of law in this state, and I take that responsibility extremely seriously.”
He said the U.S. Constitution is the bedrock for all state law and direct his deliberations on the topic.
“The first is that federal law is the supreme law of the land,” he wrote. “Second, Congress determines the content of that law. The fact that a state might pass a law that conflicts with … federal law cannot nullify these principles or shield an activity from federal prosecution.”
The Oregon Legislature recently established an Illegal Marijuana Market Enforcement Grant program with $9 million to be used in the next six years.
Civil law enforcement mechanism Williams proposes using in conjunction with, or as an alternative to criminal prosecution in some cases, include asset forfeiture, civil litigation and administrative enforcement.
Williams’ third priority will be to enforce federal pot violations that involve or pose a risk of violence in communities, particularly those involving firearms.
“During the summit, I heard landowners describe feeling intimidated by marijuana producers, some of whom were armed,” Williams said. “These are of particular concern, given that the protection of (the) public is our paramount objective.”
Another public safety issue is the illegal manufacturing of butane hash oil that has resulted in explosions and fires.
Other priorities include prosecuting organized crime, notably of the Mexican cartels, money laundering, federal income tax evasion and racketeering and environmental degradation.
“The United States has a fundamental interest in protecting its natural resources,” Williams wrote. This priority also reflects the appreciation Oregonians share for our public lands and conservation for future generals.”
Criminal activity involves cultivating pot on federal lands, using pesticides that threaten human health, wildlife and the environment or using copious quantities of water without authorization for grow operations.
“Oregon’s livability transcends the interests of any one industry,” he said.