Could Jeff Sessions shut down Washington’s legal weed? Some politicians are worried

Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Associated Press

As Washington lawmakers quibble over the best way to spend money generated by the state’s legal marijuana business, some of them worry the debate could become irrelevant under President Donald Trump’s pick to become the next U.S. attorney general.

Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee to become the country’s top government lawyer, said during Senate confirmation hearings last month that he “won’t commit to never enforcing federal law” when it comes to marijuana — a statement laced with enough ambiguity to worry officials in states such as Washington, where voters have legalized the drug.

“Trump’s AG may make this a moot point,” said state House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, regarding discussions of how Washington should spend its weed money.

“He could force us to actually shut down the industry — that’s a bigger concern currently,” Sullivan said of Sessions, who is a Republican U.S. senator from Alabama.

Under federal law, marijuana remains an illegal Schedule I drug.

Yet in a 2013 memorandum, the U.S. Department of Justice said it wouldn’t challenge states with legal marijuana laws, as long as those states put in place sufficient regulations to keep the drug out of the hands of minors and criminals, among other safeguards.

Last month, Sessions said he would need to review that four-year-old document — known as the Cole memorandum — in which the federal government said it would stay out of states’ legal weed markets.

“... I am not privy to any Department of Justice data regarding the effectiveness and value of the policies contained within that memorandum,” Sessions wrote in response to questions from two Democratic U.S. senators, Christopher Coons of Delaware and Dianne Feinstein of California.

“If I am fortunate enough to be confirmed as attorney general, I will certainly review and evaluate those policies, including the original justifications for the memorandum, as well as any relevant data and how circumstances may have changed or how they may change in the future.”

Sessions’ nomination to become U.S. attorney general cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. He now awaits a confirmation vote by the U.S. Senate.

Some Washington officials say they think Sessions will leave Washington’s marijuana system alone, given the limits of federal enforcement resources and the growing number of states where voters have approved legalization.

In November, another four states — California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada — approved legalizing marijuana for recreational use, doubling the number of states with legalized recreational marijuana laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Meanwhile, voters in 28 states have approved legalizing medical marijuana, including three that voted to do so in November.

“The resources it would take for (the federal government) to come into all the states would be significant,” said state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, the leader on marijuana issues for the mostly Republican coalition that controls the state Senate.

“It would just cost too much money,” Rivers said.

That’s not enough to ease the fears of some Washington Democrats, who see Trump’s actions in recent weeks as proof that nothing is certain.

“It is extremely difficult for anyone to pretend we can predict what the Trump administration is going to do,” said state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who worked on a major overhaul of the state’s marijuana laws in 2015.

Gov. Jay Inslee said he would do whatever he could to convince the White House that Washington’s experiment with legalized marijuana has been a success. If necessary, the Democratic governor said he would push members of Congress to “rein in, if you will” the prospective attorney general.

If that doesn’t work, Inslee said he would defend Washington’s marijuana law in the courts.

“Frankly, if the attorney general moves in this direction, he is clearly against the tides of history,” Inslee said last week, citing the number of states that have followed Washington and Colorado in passing legalized marijuana laws.

“... I think it would be a really big mistake for them to pick this fight, and I hope it will not occur,” Inslee said of Trump’s administration.

Losing marijuana revenues wouldn’t be a huge hit to Washington’s finances. The state is projected to bring in about $41.3 billion over the next two years to pay for a new 2017-19 state operating budget. About $730 million in marijuana revenues are expected during that period.

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia and the Senate’s lead budget writer, said if Sessions did try to shut down Washington’s marijuana market, he probably wouldn’t do so without giving ample notice — hopefully, enough that state lawmakers wouldn’t have to reconvene unexpectedly to adjust their budget.

For now, state lawmakers don’t plan to omit marijuana revenue from the equation as they negotiate a new two-year spending plan, several leaders said.

“There’s always uncertainties, and that’s why you have a multiplicity of revenue sources,” said state Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm and the House minority floor leader.

“Keeping marijuana in the mix — as long as it’s not a an overwhelming majority of our revenues, which it never will be — is the right thing to do.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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