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Washington promises battle with Sessions over legal pot

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 4, 2018, 10:27 p.m.

Gov. Jay Inslee, right, and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson discuss Washington’s possible reaction to efforts by the federal government to crack down on legal marijuana. (Rachel Sun / The Spokesman-Review)
Gov. Jay Inslee, right, and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson discuss Washington’s possible reaction to efforts by the federal government to crack down on legal marijuana. (Rachel Sun / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Washington officials promised a bipartisan battle against any new effort by the federal government to crack down on the state’s legal marijuana operations, although the type of weapons that might be deployed are unclear.

Gov. Jay Inslee blasted a decision by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to rescind previous federal policies on nonenforcement of federal marijuana laws under some circumstances.

“The White House is in chaos and they decided to attack the West Coast,” he told a gathering of reporters and editors at the Associated Press legislative preview. Sessions’ decision, released a few hours earlier, was “based on ideology and politics,” Inslee said.

Legal marijuana operations generated $300 million in taxes and license fees for Washington in the last fiscal year, and are projected to generate $362 million in the current fiscal year. More than half of that is scheduled to go into state health care programs, such as the Basic Health Plan Trust Account and the Health Care Authority.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said it was too soon to say what the state’s legal response would be, but that a team of lawyers in his office is weighing options. Sessions’ announcement rescinds the Cole Memo, a 2013 outline from the Obama Administration on how states could avoid federal prosecutions of recreational marijuana operations by keeping the drug away from minors and ensuring it does not go to other states or into organized crime operations. It also rescinds the earlier Ogden Memo, with similar advice for states that legalize medical marijuana.

But Sessions does not call for specific enforcement action in states which have legalized a drug that is still illegal under federal law, Ferguson said, and what Sessions plans to do is “wide open.”

Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said a letter last fall from Sessions criticizing Washington’s legal marijuana system was based on incorrect information and Thursday’s decision was “equally misguided.”

“We have almost eradicated the black market” for illegal marijuana sales, she said. “Why would we go away from that?”

Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma, said legislation could be introduced in the upcoming session to make Washington a “sanctuary state” for legal marijuana.

Inslee said that despite the uncertainty of this change in federal posture toward states that have legalized marijuana, Washington consumers and businesses should not be intimidated. Instead, the public should produce “an uproar of resistance.”

Ferguson said he’ll be talking with attorneys general from other states with some form of legal marijuana before settling on a course of action.

“We always knew this was possible,” he said. “We’re not messing around.”


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