Washington officials say they’re prepared to wage a legal battle if the Trump administration tries to shut down the state’s booming recreational marijuana industry.
During a news conference Thursday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said states should expect “greater enforcement” of the federal law banning recreational marijuana use. He offered no details of how such enforcement would be carried out, but his comments caused some to fear a looming crackdown on the drug under U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an outspoken opponent of legalizing pot.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Thursday he was “deeply disappointed” by Spicer’s comments but promised to “defend the will of Washington voters.”
Ferguson said in a statement, “My office will use every tool at our disposal to ensure that the federal government does not undermine Washington’s successful, unified system for regulating recreational and medical marijuana.”
Gov. Jay Inslee said earlier this month that reversing course on marijuana enforcement would put the Trump administration “on the wrong side of history.”
Eight states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for recreational use. The Justice Department has several options available should it decide to step up enforcement, including filing lawsuits on the grounds that state laws regulating pot are unconstitutional because they are pre-empted by federal law.
But some question just how easy it would be to shift away from marijuana policy under the Obama administration, which said in a 2013 memo that it would not intervene in states’ marijuana laws as long as they keep the drug from crossing state lines and away from children and drug cartels.
“Some people think that you can just tear up the memo, but that’s not the case,” said Brian Smith, a spokesman for Washington’s Liquor and Cannabis Board. “There’s a state law on the books now. Washington is going to continue to carry out state law.”
Chris Marr, a former state senator and Liquor and Cannabis Board member, said he doesn’t anticipate a swift dismantling of Washington’s thriving marijuana market – in part because the Drug Enforcement Administration doesn’t have enough resources.
“It’s a long way to go before I start sounding the alarms, and certainly not based on something Sean Spicer said,” Marr said.
Crystal Oliver, who owns a pot farm and processing plant in Deer Park, said she isn’t concerned because marijuana legalization “is definitely a states’ rights issue.”
Seattle attorney Douglas Hiatt isn’t sure about that.
Hiatt, who has defended several marijuana cases in Eastern Washington, said Sessions could reverse course with the stroke of a pen and order states’ marijuana industries to cease and desist.
“I think it would be very easy. All they have to do is make it a priority,” Hiatt said. “I believe the supremacy clause in the Constitution will prevail.”
On Wednesday, two local federal law enforcement officials, who were not authorized to speak on the record, said they had received no direction from their bosses in D.C. regarding a shift in policy on recreational marijuana.
A renewed focus on recreational marijuana in states that have legalized pot would present a departure from the Trump administration’s statements in favor of states’ rights. On Wednesday, the administration announced that the issue of transgender student bathroom access was best left to states and local communities to decide.
Hiatt thinks the apparent hypocrisy would be lost on the country’s new attorney general, who said last year that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
“After Mr. Sessions finishes up with the weighty issue of where people pee, I assume he’ll move on to the weighty issue of all these bad people who use marijuana,” Hiatt said.
The Associated Press and Spokesman-Review staff writers Thomas Clouse and Jim Camden contributed to this report.