Washington state was one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, and now has quite a bit to lose if the Trump administration chooses to crack down on states with retail pot operations. With U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions hinting that federal intervention may be in the offing, his counterpart in Olympia is drawing a line in the soil, saying that any effort by the White House to interfere with the state’s marijuana regulations would be “unacceptable.”
Concerned by the Trump administration’s comments on legalized marijuana — White House spokesman Sean Spicer likened pot to the opioid epidemic; the President has indicated in writing that the Justice Department may ignore restrictions on pot prosecutions — state leaders have repeatedly reached out to Sessions to get a sense of what’s to come.
For instance, in April, the governors of Washington, Colorado, Alaska, and Oregon collectively wrote to Sessions and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin [PDF], calling on them to not rescind previous financial and law-enforcement guidance that has allowed medical and recreational marijuana companies in their states to more easily conduct business.
Sessions responded to that letter and others this week, making it clear that he remains skeptical of both recreational and medical marijuana.
In his letter [PDF] to Washington Governer Jay Inslee and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Sessions cites a March 2016 report from the Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program — a remnant of the Reagan-era war on drugs that is part of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Sessions points to a number of statistics from that HIDTA report [PDF] that he believes raise “serious questions about the efficacy of marijuana ‘regulatory structures’ in” Washington state.
Among the stats called out by Sessions: 49% of young adult drivers who used marijuana had driven a car within three hours after using; that 61.9% of drivers do not believe that marijuana use makes a difference in one’s driving ability; and that the number of fatal accidents involving drivers with THC (the active chemical in marijuana) in their blood had increased 122% between 2010-2014.
It’s worth pointing out that the number of fatal incidents involving drivers with THC in Washington state is dwarfed by those involving alcohol. According to the same Washington state study used by HIDTA, there were 314 incidents between 2010 and 2014 involving drivers with high levels of alcohol (no THC or other drugs present) in their system, accounting for nearly 30% of all fatal incidents where there substances detected. Compare that to 56 incidents where THC was the only drug present. Yet, despite the large numbers of deaths easily attributable to alcohol, there is no indication of an impending reinstatement of the Volstead Act.
The AG also tries to make the argument that Washington is now a pot exporter to other states, citing a claim from the HIDTA report that authorities have seized Washington-produced pot that had been intended for distribution to 43 other states. While that is nearly every state in the union, Washington growers had been shipping to nearly the same number of states before legalization (HIDTA only provides data going back to 2010, when Washington growers tried to ship pot to 35 different states).
Nor does the report make any attempt to put that figure into context: Did the seized pot come from licensed growers or illegal farms? How does the figure compare to seizures from producers in other states? What is the likelihood that illegal growers are shipping to every state and this “43 states” figure is more a reflection of law enforcement’s ability to halt the shipments?
Washington AG Ferguson said today that he is “disappointed” in Sessions’ response to his state’s concerns, and the DOJ’s reliance on “incomplete, inaccurate and out-of-date information” about Washington’s regulation of marijuana.
“Any action from the Department of Justice short of allowing our well-regulated, voter-approved system to continue is unacceptable,” says Ferguson. “I will continue to defend the will of Washington voters.”
Ferguson says he has invited Sessions to meet in person to discuss these concerns but that Sessions has not responded to those invitations.