Retail marijuana shop owners from across the North Olympic Peninsula vowed to operate business as usual after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era policy that has allowed legalized marijuana to flourish.
President Donald Trump’s top law enforcement official announced the change Thursday, Jan. 4.
Instead of the previous lenient-federal-enforcement policy, Sessions’ new stance will instead let federal prosecutors where marijuana is legal decide how aggressively to enforce longstanding federal law prohibiting it.
Anthony Owen, co-owner of Hidden Bush in Port Angeles and Karma Cannabis in Sequim, said that though the decision is concerning, it will be business as usual for him until the feds tell him otherwise.
“My thoughts are that we’re going to continue to pay our state and federal taxes and we’re going to continue to operate until we get a shutdown letter,” he said. “Until we get an official shutdown letter from the federal government, we will operate as normal.”
Owen said that with the marijuana industry there has always been concern about federal enforcement.
“We didn’t get into this industry without being free of concern,” he said. “To us, we’re in the same position we were in when we first opened our doors.”
Greg Brotherton, who owns Sea Change Cannabis in Discovery Bay, said the decision threatens his three businesses, but he plans to keep going as he has until there is a clearer message from federal attorneys.
“All of these could easily get shut down,” said Brotherton, who also owns Discovery Bay Village Store and Disco Bay Detour, both next door to Sea Change Cannabis. “That’s the only reason we’re able to do this — it funds all of this.”
He said that though the grocery store is mostly self-sustaining at this point, it was the cannabis store that made it possible.
He called marijuana a bipartisan issue and said the ambiguous message from Sessions results in him not knowing what to expect.
Malik Atwater, who owns Mister Buds in Port Angeles, said his first reaction “was that I was angry, not so much at Jeff Sessions, but at Republican pot smokers who didn’t know any better and elected Donald Trump.
“This is what you get.”
Atwater said the decision has him concerned. He said on Jan. 4 he had already talked to his wife about whether she should be removed from his marijuana license because of concerns about being prosecuted.
“The possibility is always there and I would not put it past Sessions or Trump to do something that didn’t make any sense whatsoever,” he said.
The move by Trump’s attorney general has already added to the confusion about whether it’s OK to grow, buy or use marijuana in states where the drug is legal.
U.S. Attorney Annette Hayes, who heads the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Washington, emphasized in a statement a message of individual U.S. Attorney discretion and said that her office has prosecuted cases involving organized crime, violent and gun threats and financial crimes related to marijuana.
“We will continue to do so to ensure — consistent with the most recent guidance from the Department — that our enforcement efforts with our federal, state, local and tribal partners focus on those who pose the greatest safety risk to the people and communities we serve,” she said in the statement.
Hayes’ statement did not indicate a change in priorities, but also didn’t address the state’s legal marijuana industry.
Gov. Jay Inslee vowed on Jan. 4 to defend the state’s laws legalizing marijuana, calling the decision a step backward.
“I am especially frustrated that this announcement comes after Sessions has refused offers from Attorney General [Bob] Ferguson and myself to meet with him to discuss these policies in person, after he has disregarded the input that we and other state leaders have provided to his department,” Inslee said in a statement.
“Make no mistake: As we have told the Department of Justice ever since I-502 was passed in 2012, we will vigorously defend our state’s laws against undue federal infringement.”
He said during a press conference that he can’t offer any legal advice to any Washingtonian, but urged residents and business owners “not to hit the panic button” yet.
Make no mistake: As we have told the Department of Justice ever since I-502 was passed in 2012, we will vigorously defend our state’s laws against undue federal infringement. https://t.co/R3jJrncN9X pic.twitter.com/uM48hVH26q
— Governor Jay Inslee (@GovInslee) January 4, 2018
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson — who has repeatedly challenged the Trump administration in court — said Thursday it was too early to know if he will file a lawsuit.
“Over the past year, Sessions has demonstrated a stunning lack of knowledge about our state’s marijuana laws,” he said in a statement. “I pledge to vigorously defend the will of the voters in Washington state.”
AG Ferguson response on reported action by US AG Jeff Sessions on federal marijuana policy. Read AG Ferguson and @GovInslee's letter to Sessions correcting Sessions' bad information on WA marijuana law here: https://t.co/z1DY0fbnsE pic.twitter.com/i68zhtHc9A
— WA Attorney General (@AGOWA) January 4, 2018
U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, criticized Sessions on Thursday for making a decision that that goes against Washington’s voters.
“No matter how you feel about the legalization of marijuana, this decision by the federal government to meddle in a state issue settled by public referendum is particularly troubling and would create tremendous uncertainty,” said Kilmer, whose district includes Clallam and Jefferson counties.
“It’s the wrong decision and is in direct conflict with the Attorney General’s long career of advocating for more autonomy for state and local government.”
Sessions, who has assailed marijuana as comparable to heroin and has blamed it for spikes in violence, had been expected to ramp up enforcement.
Marijuana advocates argue that legalizing the drug eliminates the need for a black market and will likely reduce violence, since criminals would no longer control the marijuana trade.
The Obama administration in 2013 announced it would not stand in the way of states that legalize marijuana, so long as officials acted to keep it from migrating to places where it remained outlawed and keep it out of the hands of criminal gangs and children.
Sessions is rescinding that memo, written by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, which had cleared up some of the uncertainty about how the federal government would respond as states began allowing sales for recreational and medical purposes.
Jesse Major is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. He can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.