Though the nation’s top prosecutor said this week that regional offices should determine when federal charges should be filed in drug cases, U.S. District Attorney for Eastern Washington Mike Ormsby demurred Friday when asked how he will respond to the state’s new recreational marijuana laws.
“That decision’s really being made at a level that’s higher than my pay grade,” Ormsby told the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce. “As soon as we have a decision made, it will be rolled out.”
Ormsby spoke in a mostly self-effacing tone to an audience of about 60 at the Mirabeau Park Hotel, highlighting the collaborative efforts among local, state and federal agencies on issues ranging from fraud to violent crime.
He also addressed comments from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, made to the American Bar Association at a San Francisco event earlier this week, in which the attorney general said district offices should prioritize which cases deserve federal scrutiny, specifically drug offenses.
Holder ordered that “certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels … no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences,” he told the assembled attorneys.
Such discretion has been the standard policy of the Eastern Washington office for years, Ormsby said.
“Like a lot of political issues, the attorney general had to frame it as though we were doing something different,” Ormsby said. Budget and staffing cuts in the Department of Justice, intensified by this year’s mandatory belt-tightening known as sequestration, have dictated the district’s decision whether to pursue sentences that fill already overcrowded federal prisons.
The focus in recent months has been on fraud, violent crime and the narcotics drug trade, Ormsby said. A recent bust of a California supplier of oxycodone to Spokane neighborhoods yielded a seizure of more than 30,000 pills, Ormsby said, and caused crime in the affected area to immediately drop 77 percent. He also pointed to the indictment of Spokane developer Greg Jeffreys, accused of defrauding investors of millions of dollars, as evidence of the district’s crackdown on corporate offenders.
“Dealing with white-collar crime, and people that steal money with pens instead of guns, is a very important component of a balanced and effective law enforcement effort,” Ormsby said.
As to whether prosecutorial discretion will prove favorable to those hoping to grow and sell marijuana, Ormsby declined repeated requests from the crowd on specifics. He offered no timetable on when directives from Holder might be handed down to handle licensed businesses in the pot industry. The state’s Liquor Control Board earlier this week delayed release of a first draft of those rules to Sept. 1, with final regulations still set to be in place by Dec. 1.
“There’s a lot of other policy and political issues involved here, and as a lawyer, it’s very difficult for me to weigh in on that,” Ormsby said.