Jeff Sessions Hints at a Weed Crackdown. Cannabis Business Owners Shrug.

“It might even be a good thing.”

Jeff Sessions in Portland. (Sam Gehrke)

Oregon's cannabis growers, distributors and users didn't flinch last week when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the federal policy limiting the reach of federal prosecutors in states that have legalized recreational marijuana sales.

"We don't think it's going to be that big of a deal," says Myron Chadowitz, chief financial officer for Cannassentials, a farm in Eugene. "It might even be a good thing."

After Sessions yanked the federal policy known as the Cole Memo, WW talked to industry experts, growers, sellers and lawyers to understand the many reasons not to worry about Sessions and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration rolling into Oregon.

Oregon's top federal prosecutor says he's only looking for crimes that are illegal under Oregon law.

The statement issued by U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams indicates little appetite for prosecuting legal cannabis sellers or users. Instead, his vague statement said he hoped to continue to focus on prosecuting cases involving "overproduction," criminal organizations, and pot shipped across state lines.

"My hope is that he will continue to approach it strategically so that he does not incite President Trump to remove him and replace him with someone who is more anti-cannabis," says Jesse Peters, CEO of Eco Firma Farms in Canby. "I think his answer was very political, and I'm optimistic that that was a good thing."

Legal weed is wildly popular in Oregon.

If Williams did decide to prosecute a legal business, he would be met with "massive and fierce political backlash," says lawyer Bear Wilner-Nugent, who frequently represents clients in the cannabis industry.

If Williams started prosecuting otherwise law-abiding Oregonians under federal rules, it's hard to see how he would ever work in the state again. "It's career suicide if he's going to go after this," says Perry Salzhauer, who works for Green Light Law Group.

Oregon's cannabis industry is well-established, so it's less vulnerable than newer markets such as California's.

Sessions' move may chill investment and banking services for cannabis entrepreneurs in California's just-developing market. But more than 19,000 Oregonians already have jobs related to the legal cannabis industry in the state. Oregon made more than $60 million last year from taxes on marijuana sales.

"Pulling the Cole Memo out from under this industry and thinking that will stop it is like shooting a BB gun at a freight train," Peters says.

There just aren't enough federal resources for a systematic crackdown on marijuana.

Recreational pot is legal in eight states (including the full length of the West Coast) and Washington, D.C. "It's hard to see the means to increase enforcement," Wilner-Nugent says, "with a few dozen feds and a handful of prosecutors."

Chadowitz says the FBI and the DEA are simply outnumbered.

"Oregon officials will stand by us 100 percent at every level," he says. "Not only the governor, but senators and representatives in Congress, the [district attorneys], the police and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission."

Legalizing marijuana federally is gaining momentum.

"Sessions is on his own here," says Lee Henderson, co-founder of HiFi Farms outside of Portland. "There's been a massive outcry from both Democrats and Republicans."

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has co-sponsored a bill to federally deregulate cannabis. There's never been so much support for this movement as now. More than 61 percent of Americans want the feds to allow recreational marijuana use.
Peters thinks high-profile raids could backfire for Sessions and the Department of Justice.

"When you start doing that, you start costing jobs, you start disrupting voters' lives," he says. "It puts more pressure on Congress to take care of their voters."

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