Sessions needs to look more to reality for marijuana policy


It might not be the president’s policy to check facts. But U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions should do so before criticizing states about their marijuana policies.

It seems Sessions knows what he knows and likes what he knows. Never mind the facts. That approach does not foster good relations with the 28 states that have legalized some form of use of marijuana, including a half-dozen that legalized recreational use.

In Washington, medicinal marijuana has been legal and available for nearly two decades. State voters in 2012 took another step by authorizing a state-regulated recreational marijuana market, and the Legislature in 2015 acted to bring the medicinal market under the same tighter regulations.

In a recent letter to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Sessions warned — correctly — that weed use is still illegal under federal law. But he asserted that Washington’s medical marijuana market is operating in a gray area as a result of “the lack of regulation and oversight.”

That claim relied on outdated — if not false — information. State legislation adopted in 2015 began the merger of Washington’s medical and recreational marijuana markets. By July 2016, all unlicensed storefront dispensaries of medical marijuana were shut down, according to the state Liquor and Cannabis Board.
Those regulatory actions were taken in response to growing awareness by state policy makers that tighter rules were needed.

Better regulation was also a key part of this state’s working relationship with the Obama administration, which recognized the ongoing failures of the U.S. war on drugs. Obama’s DOJ tolerated state experiments with marijuana policy on condition they had strong oversight.

After President Donald Trump took office in January, the change in administrations raised new questions about marijuana policy’s future. In February, Inslee and Ferguson wrote in vain to Sessions inviting him to meet them and discuss it directly.

In April, Inslee and fellow governors in Colorado, Oregon and Alaska wrote to Sessions and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to caution against any revision of a 2013 Department of Justice memorandum on state marijuana programs. Dubbed the Cole Memorandum, the DOJ memo sought to balance the need for public safety against the ability of states to allow the use of marijuana in conflict with federal statutes that forbid it.

More recently, Sessions tried linking marijuana with violent crime. Yet Washington has seen a drop in violent crime rates, notching a lower rate than the national average in 2015. That contradicts conjecture that legalized marijuana is boosting crime.

Sessions does raise concerns worth paying attention to. One is to halt illegal sales of marijuana to minors and the dangers of marijuana use by drivers, both problems that existed before marijuana legalization. Preventing “leakage” of marijuana sales into neighboring states that outlaw them should remain a state priority.

Unfortunately, Sessions has not accepted the invitation by Ferguson to meet in person and discuss the matter. Were Sessions to do so, he might come to understand that wanting less crime is consistent with one of the reasons Washington voted to legalize recreational marijuana sales. Specifically, legalization may take the illicit profits out of marijuana sales and thereby curb the influence of violent and criminal enterprises.

Good data is needed to show how well the state-run weed markets are reducing illicit drug flows. To the extent Washington’s Initiative 502 is having a good effect, the Department of Justice should stand in support.