Gov. Inslee lashes back at Sessions on marijuana

OLYMPIA – Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee expressed a defiant attitude toward U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who announced on Thursday the rescinding of Obama-era guidelines that assisted the legalization of non-medical marijuana in Washington, seven other states and the District of Columbia.

Sessions’ announcement came via a memo to U.S. attorneys, in which he referenced the illegality of possessing and distributing marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act. The attorney general suggested that such legislation confirms that marijuana is a “dangerous drug.”

The Ogden and Cole memoranda, put in place in 2009 and 2012, respectively, set guidelines for federal authorities that essentially encouraged a hands-off approach to enforcing federal marijuana laws in states that had legalized the drug. Marijuana was legalized in Washington state by Initiative 502 in 2012.

In his memo, Sessions declared the memoranda to be rescinded, effective Immediately.

While the attorney general encouraged federal prosecutors to exercise their own discretion, Inslee said they would have to work in isolation, as he has no plans to use the resources of local law enforcement agencies in Washington.

Inslee, flanked by Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center and Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma, voiced vehement opposition to Sessions’ announcement, calling out President Donald Trump’s administration for going against what Inslee called progress. The group was gathered on Thursday in Olympia as part of the annual Associated Press legislative session preview for news media.

“It’s disappointing to see the administration want to go backwards,” the governor said. “The rest of the world wants to follow us.”

While Inslee and Ferguson were hesitant to comment on potential legal action, the governor did not rule out the possibility of a lawsuit against the White House.

Rivers emphasized the bipartisan effort that has helped the marijuana industry flourish, and said that effort will continue, despite federal sentiment.

“We have been extremely united,” the senator said. “We anticipate that we will maintain our system and program.” Sawyer noted that even in years of Republican control in the Washington Senate, there have been no efforts to repeal the initiative that established marijuana’s legalization.

Rivers called the U.S. attorney general’s position “misguided,” and claimed that Washington state has all but eliminated the black market for marijuana, while Sessions’ new federal guidelines could bring it back.

The senator from Southwest Washington also referenced economic interests, predicting that the marijuana industry could bring $750 million into the state by the end of the year.

While Washington state’s political leaders shared their disappointment in Sessions’ announcement with compatriots in Colorado, Alaska and Oregon, Ferguson made sure to point out that Sessions’ announcement was to be expected, and that Washington state legalized marijuana before the Cole memorandum was authored in 2013.

Inslee, Ferguson and governors in Alaska, Oregon and Colorado made several attempts throughout 2017 to meet with Sessions to discuss the Trump administration’s position on marijuana, but the attorney general declined, writing back that Washington state’s regulatory structures were questionable.

A recurring theme in Inslee’s rhetoric was the power of Washington citizens, whose votes allowed the legalization of marijuana in the first place. The governor hearkened to the history of citizen initiatives, and repeatedly said that it was the citizens that could shape national discourse.

“We should believe an uproar of public sentiment can change policy,” Inslee said. “We should have confidence in our ability to do this again.”

Alex Visser is a reporter with the WNPA Olympia News Bureau.

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