It is tense times right now in the cannabis world. Anxiety has been building ever since longtime cannabis opponent Jeff Sessions was appointed as United States Attorney General by Donald Trump. Anxiety levels are all over the board in the cannabis community, ranging from tempered worries by some all the way to full-blown panic on the part of others.
No matter where cannabis advocates were on the spectrum months ago, anxiety levels ramped up quite a bit for the entire community last month when Jeff Sessions rescinded the Obama-era Cole memo which provided some protections for state-level cannabis legalization. To be completely fair, the rescinding of the memo does not automatically mean that a federal crackdown is imminent.
What it means is that if federal prosecutors want to go after people in legal states by enforcing federal prohibition, they can. Logically the focus has since been on federal prosecutors to gauge their interest for a crackdown. Public stances amongst federal prosecutors seem to fall into one of the three categories. The first is that there will be no change in enforcement. The second is more of a cryptic response that involves language akin to ‘we reserve the right to pursue all options available since cannabis is still illegal at the federal level.’
The third category was on display this week when an event was held in Oregon that was attended by law enforcement representatives, including federal prosecutors, from all over the country. The summit was first mentioned in an op-ed penned by Oregon federal prosecutor Billy J. Williams in Oregon’s largest media outlet. The op-ed complained about a ‘cannabis oversupply issue’ in Oregon and tried very hard to elude to an inevitable recreational cannabis diversion epidemic. The doomsday scenario was echoed at the summit, and it was stated that ‘something would be done about it.’
Yes, Oregon has a lot of cannabis being produced right now. That is no secret. But that in no way translates to an unavoidable cannabis diversion issue. To suggest otherwise is likely just an attempt to lay the groundwork for increased enforcement to ‘fix the issue’ that does not exist (in my opinion). Laws, enforcement framework, and rules are already in place to help prevent diversion and punish people that do so. That is true in Oregon and in every other state that now allows adult-use production and sales.
Legal adult-use cannabis produced in Oregon is tracked from seed to sale. Harsh laws are on the books for diverting legal adult-use cannabis out of the regulated system. Law enforcement is enforcing the laws when they find people in violation. With that in mind, what is the need for a law enforcement cannabis summit in Oregon? Pushing aside the fact that a major diversion issue doesn’t even exist, what changes could possibly be viable to explore given what is already in place?
I feel that the summit, which was billed as being a type of brainstorming session, was really just an anti-marijuana summit. To be fair, it’s my understanding that members of the industry were present at the summit, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that discussions weren’t taking place without industry reps present. I feel that they were just sprinkled in to help provide cover for what was really going on. Keeping in mind that the summit was organized to focus on Oregon’s ‘situation,’ look at who was in attendance, per The Seattle Times:
The meeting included representatives from 13 other U.S. attorney’s offices, the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. U.S. attorneys from California, Washington, Colorado, Idaho, Alaska and Montana attended in person.
Why would law enforcement representatives from all over the nation meet to discuss a cannabis ‘issue’ that they perceive is happening in one state? Also, why was the media not allowed to attend, per the tweet below from an Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter?
The media was only allowed to cover the opening remarks of the marijuana summit, which goes until 3p.
— Conrad Wilson (@conradjwilson) February 2, 2018
Why the lack of transparency? If there are already safeguards in place to help prevent cannabis diversion out of Oregon, and the very limited number of bad actors that are caught diverting cannabis will still be punished via state and/or federal courts, why even have a summit in the first place? At best, the summit was just a waste of time with law enforcement officials trying to re-invent the wheel to fix a perceived problem, all at taxpayers’ expense.
But at worst, something else could be going on. Was this a meeting of the minds to try to figure out ways to crack down on the legal cannabis industry? Oregon Governor Kate Brown was in attendance and stated that she was assured that people in legal compliance in Oregon would not be the subject of federal enforcement, but if so, why even have the summit in the first place?
What was the true goal of the summit? Unfortunately, we may never know. I do not personally think that it was just to address Oregon’s cannabis oversupply issue because having a lot of legal cannabis sitting in secured storerooms is not in itself an issue. Until there is proof of widespread diversion, the cannabis diversion boogeyman is also not an issue. That’s not to say that there won’t be bad actors here and there because that can occur in ANY large industry. But just as in other industries, those bad actors will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis via the laws and enforcement framework that is already in place.
If widespread diversion from Oregon’s adult-use industry does become an issue, then perhaps a summit would be appropriate. If members of law enforcement are seeing so much adult-use cannabis being diverted out of Oregon’s regulated system, and they need additional resources to deal with it, that’s something that I can understand. But to bring people in from all over the country to talk about a bunch of legal cannabis sitting in secure, legally compliant places makes no sense. I don’t think it’s a leap to think that there is more going on than what is being publicly stated by organizers of the summit.
To me, it’s not whether or not other stuff was discussed at the summit by cannabis reform opponents. I think it’s very safe to say that the summit was organized out of a motivation to try to roll back gains made by cannabis advocates. What I think is the real question is whether or not there were any new strategies adopted by opponents who attended the summit. Federal prosecutor Billy J. Williams stating that ‘something will be done about Oregon’s oversupply issue,’ but what does that mean exactly?
Specifically, if the entire adult-use supply stays within the legal system in Oregon, does that mean that nothing will happen, even if the supply continues to increase over time? What more can be done to go after people who divert cannabis from the regulated system given that it’s already illegal to do so, and people could be prosecuted for it even prior to the rescinding of the Obama-era Cole memo by Jeff Sessions? Are summit organizers trying to make diversion somehow even more illegal?
Oregon’s cannabis supply is not going to be eliminated, and neither is the legal cannabis industry wherever it currently exists. Busting people who operate outside of state law would not be a new strategy because, after all, that type of prohibition and enforcement already exists as I have pointed out multiple times in this article. It is my hope that the anti-cannabis crusaders in law enforcement see that there’s nothing that they can do to change things back to how it used to be, back when they could go after harmless people in the name of cannabis prohibition.
If this is truly just about diversion, and state and federal law enforcement does not want to go after people that are operating within the legal parameters in their state, then nothing will change. Also, if that proves to be the case, then the summit was just a big waste of taxpayer dollars. However, if people operating legally at the state level become the target of federal enforcement, I hope that there is a public outcry the likes of which has never been seen before. If federal enforcement on legal entities occurs, Billy J. Williams and everyone else that touted the summit as being about preventing diversion would be total liars and should be held accountable.
Ultimately I don’t think that the summit is cause for panic, yet. I think that law enforcement’s hands are largely tied when it comes to going after legal cannabis entities that are doing things the right way. Public support for a federal crackdown is extremely low, and cannabis opponents in law enforcement have backed themselves into a corner by stating that they are OK with people that are doing things legally at the state level.
With that being said, the cannabis community needs to keep monitoring the situation and keep contacting lawmakers at all levels to remind them that the will of the people needs to be respected and state-level legalization needs to continue to move forward without federal interference.