Oregon’s top federal prosecutor reiterated on Friday that his office still lacks critical information about the scope of illegal diversion of marijuana out of state.
U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams spoke with Nkenge Harmon Johnson, president and CEO of the Urban League of Portland, at the City Club of Portland, in a wide-ranging discussion that touched on Williams’ approach to marijuana and a host of civil rights issues.
In line with a list of priorities he issued last week, Williams said federal resources will be focused on overproduction of cannabis, diversion across state lines and what he characterizes as threats to public health and safety posed by the drug.
Oregonians voted to legalize recreational marijuana for adult use in 2014, more than a decade after legalizing medical marijuana in the state; it remains illegal under federal law.
In early January, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the prior administration’s guidelines for federal prosecutors in states where marijuana is legal, which emphasized pursuit of high-level violations of law, such as trafficking, as opposed to state-legal activities.
Sessions gave federal prosecutors wide discretion on how to approach prosecuting cannabis, although he has said publicly that federal authorities will not target “small” marijuana cases.
Williams was, last week, the first federal prosecutor to state publicly his office’s priorities on the issue, amid dissonance between state and federal law.
Harmon Johnson asked Williams what those priorities mean for Oregonians who use marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes.
“Again, we have finite resources,” Williams said. “I’m pretty sure the FBI is not going to be knocking on anybody’s back door this weekend if you’re engaged in the use of marijuana.”
He also emphasized the need for more information about overproduction and diversion of the product outside of Oregon.
“We need to have data,” Williams said. “That is the top issue for us in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and nationally. We need to know what the state’s data is on production, because we do know from a draft report that was never finalized, that there is more marijuana being produced in Oregon than can possibly be consumed.”
Williams was referencing a report prepared by Oregon State Police, a draft version of which was obtained by The Oregonian last year, but he says was never finalized.
Although he asked the state for a final version of that report, the state hadn’t produced the information he asked for, Williams said.
“I’ve asked the state for a final report, for that data,” Williams said. “It hasn’t been generated yet, I don’t know that it will be and I don’t understand that.”
Williams said he wants to “help the state” with the diversion of marijuana across state lines, which is illegal under state as well as federal law. He emphasized what he says is a need for data collection and working with state, local and tribal law enforcement to deal with black market diversion.
An Oregon State Police spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment on Williams’ assertions about the report on Friday afternoon. Agency officials said at the time of its initial publication that the draft report was incomplete and at points did not reference reputable sources.
Harmon Johnson asked Williams why, when many states are legalizing the drug in some fashion, marijuana is a top priority for federal prosecutors and why federal resources devoted to marijuana aren’t instead used to address the opioid epidemic.
Williams stressed what he characterizes as the “collateral consequences” of marijuana use. He claims some young people he has met who were addicted to opioids started out smoking marijuana when someone offered them “something better.”
“Again, it’s a priority because it has collateral consequences going on that I think people, frankly, don’t even know about,” Williams said. “...It’s kind of like, hold on a bit, let’s figure this out, before we just think there are no collateral consequences.”