Feds in Oregon will target pot trafficking, public safety

Marijuana plants grow in a high tunnel at a farm near McMinnville.

SALEM — Oregon’s chief federal prosecutor says his top priorities in enforcing cannabis laws will be threats to public safety and interstate trafficking fueled by overproduction of marijuana since the state legalized medical and recreational use.

U.S. Attorney Billy Williams on Friday provided slightly more detailed information about the aspects of marijuana enforcement his office will prioritize now that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has given federal prosecutors wide latitude on the issue.

Cannabis is legal for adult use or medicinal purposes in 29 states, including Oregon and Washington, but it remains illegal under federal law.

In a memo released Friday, Williams said his office has five priority areas of enforcement:

• Marijuana overproduction, interstate trafficking and diversion of Oregon-grown marijuana across state lines. “Notably, since broader legalization took effect in 2015, large quantities of marijuana from Oregon have been seized in 30 states, most of which continue to prohibit marijuana,” he said.

• Threats to public health, including minors’ access to marijuana.

• Cannabis violations that involve firearms, violence or other threats to public safety.

• Organized crime.

• Protecting public lands and natural resources from environmental damage caused by pesticides or water use.

The priorities will guide prosecutors’ charging decisions.

However, Williams said that he would “not make broad proclamations of blanket immunity from prosecution to those who violate federal law.”

Williams also said that his office would “strategically consider” and use civil law enforcement mechanisms such as asset forfeiture and civil litigation.

In early January, Sessions rolled back Justice Department guidelines issued during the administration of former President Barack Obama.

The so-called “Cole memo” guided prosecutors in states where marijuana was deemed legal under state law to focus on prosecuting organized crime and trafficking versus low-level marijuana activity and personal use.

Although Sessions has rescinded the memo, in a speech to the Federalist Society at the Georgetown University Law School in March, Sessions said that U.S. attorneys would not be pursuing “small marijuana cases,” citing lack of resources to do so.

The guidelines also come more than three months after Williams convened a gathering of public officials, industry representatives and law enforcement in Portland to discuss cannabis issues in the state.

Williams has maintained that the state produces far more marijuana than Oregonians can consume, and that much of it gets diverted across state lines.

Williams also said he was encouraged by the passage of Senate Bill 1544, a state law to create a grant program to boost local law enforcement efforts to stem illegal cultivation and distribution.

Nonetheless, Williams said his office would continue to enforce the federal law.

“At the same time, however, and especially to the extent major enforcement or state regulatory oversight gaps persist, we will not hesitate to act as the law and facts warrant,” Williams wrote.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission is stepping up enforcement efforts as well. A recent state audit found that its licensing and tracking systems for cannabis have weaknesses that could allow illegal activity to fly under the radar.

Gov. Kate Brown issued a statement supportive of Williams’ priorities.

“Today’s announcement from U.S. Attorney Williams confirms our cooperative approach to cannabis regulation and reflects Oregonians’ priorities to keep cannabis in our state and out of the hands of children. A focus upon those breaking state law through illicit market production and trafficking only serves to bolster lawful Oregon-grown businesses,” Brown said.

“I look forward to continued collaboration with our federal partners as we work to ensure our regulations address the needs of this growing market.”

Donald Morse, chairman of the Oregon Cannabis Business Council, said Friday that he didn’t think Williams’ priorities were anything new.

“I mean, we’ve known this all along,” since Sessions rescinded the Cole memo earlier this year, Morse said.

Morse said he hopes to see Williams and law enforcement team up to address marijuana production outside of the state-legal system, which he says undermines the legal market.

Cannabis has become more mainstream in recent years. There appears to be growing support in Congress to legalize the drug.

The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group.

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