Here’s what Jeff Sessions got wrong on marijuana, according to Washington state officials

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a news conference, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, in Miami. Washington state officials disagree with how Sessions has characterized the state’s legal marijuana market.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a news conference, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, in Miami. Washington state officials disagree with how Sessions has characterized the state’s legal marijuana market. AP

Officials in Washington state think U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has it all wrong when it comes to the state’s legal marijuana market.

Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee and State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, both Democrats, fired off a letter saying Sessions recently made “a number of allegations that are outdated, incorrect, or based on incomplete information.”

On Wednesday, key lawmakers involved with setting the state’s marijuana policy — including two Republicans — followed up with their own letter.

They, too, said Sessions is off base.

“...We believe your comments reflect a misunderstanding of what has happened in Washington State since recreational marijuana was legalized in 2012,” reads the letter signed by state Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma; state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center; state Rep. Cary Condotta, R-Wenatchee; and state Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent.

The letters from Inslee, Ferguson and the four lawmakers are in response to a July 24 letter from Sessions, a former Republican senator from Alabama. In the July letter, Sessions cited parts of a 2016 report by the Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, an enforcement program run by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

“This report raises serious questions about the efficacy of marijuana ‘regulatory structures’ in your state,” Sessions wrote.

Inslee, Ferguson and the four lawmakers have asked to meet with Sessions to discuss the state’s weed market in more detail. As of Wednesday, the attorney general had yet to respond to either letter, state officials said.

Here are some of Sessions’ key assertions that Washington state officials are disputing and why.

That legal marijuana labs are exploding — literally

Inslee and Ferguson say Sessions’ July 24 letter “repeatedly fails to distinguish between marijuana activity that is legal and illegal under state law.”

“Instead, it conflates the two in a manner that implies that state-legal marijuana activity is responsible for harm actually caused by illegal marijuana activity,” Inslee and Ferguson wrote.

One example is when Sessions cites 17 explosions at THC extraction labs in Washington state. (THC, short for tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.)

“...None of these explosions were at labs operating legally under state license,” Inslee’s and Ferguson’s letter says. “In the history of our licensing system, no legal extraction lab has ever had an explosion.”

That the state is allowing a black market to thrive

Inslee and Ferguson cite similar problems with Sessions’ assertion that marijuana from Washington has been diverted to 43 other states. They say that statistic covers years before Washington’s recreational sales began “and reveals nothing about whether the sources of the marijuana were legal or illegal.”

Rivers, Sawyer, Keiser and Condotta add that Sessions is ignoring the effects of the state’s move in 2016 to eliminate unlicensed medical-marijuana dispensaries in Washington state, as well as to start carefully tracking medical marijuana. The 2016 report that Sessions cited about the state’s marijuana market came out before those reforms went into effect.

“One cannot overemphasize the importance of the elimination of unlicensed medical-marijuana dispensaries and the inclusion of medical marijuana in the traceablility system, insofar as these steps have greatly reduced the likelihood of legal marijuana being diverted into the illicit market,” the lawmakers wrote.

That youth use of marijuana has increased

The four lawmakers also dispute part of the 2016 Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area report that suggests minors in Washington state now have easier access to marijuana. The lawmakers say the notion that minors’ marijuana use increased after legalization is “inconsistent with the available facts.”

As evidence, the lawmakers cite the state’s 2016 Healthy Youth Survey, which found that rates of teen marijuana use have remained steady, “notwithstanding the legalization of marijuana in 2012.”

The lawmakers further assert that marijuana businesses have better rates of complying with laws banning sales to minors than businesses that sell liquor.

That most drivers don’t think marijuana impairs them

Inslee and Ferguson say this statistic listed in Sessions’ letter is “simply incorrect.”

Sessions had cited a statistic that 61.9 percent of drivers “do not believe marijuana makes a difference in their driving ability.”

But the study that Sessions references doesn’t actually say that.

Instead, it found that 97 out of 893 drivers surveyed reported having previously used marijuana within 2 hours of driving. While 61.9 percent of that group said marijuana didn’t hinder their driving ability, that number reflected only 6.7 percent of all the 893 drivers surveyed.

That you can compare crash rates before and after legalization

Inslee and Ferguson take issue with Sessions’ assertion that driving while under the influence of marijuana has increased in Washington state since marijuana legalization. Those statistics aren’t reliable, Inslee and Ferguson say, because testing for THC during DUI stops used to be much rarer.

“Prior to marijuana legalization, blood testing for THC at suspected DUI traffic stops was substantially less common,” Inslee and Ferguson’s letter reads. “Consequently, comparable statistics do not exist.”

Will they meet face to face?

It’s unclear whether Sessions will meet with Inslee, Ferguson and state lawmakers to sort out their areas of disagreement.

Asked if Sessions would agree to meet with Washington state officials, a Department of Justice official didn’t answer directly.

In an emailed statement, the official said a new report issued this month on Washington state’s marijuana market backs up the concerns Sessions raised in July.

“The Attorney General responded to questions from Washington state officials with evidence and statistics, including those from the state’s own government agencies, that foreshadowed troubling developments, and the updated report underscores the need for real answers to the Attorney General’s questions,” the DOJ official said.

“Indeed, the updated HIDTA report showed that increasing numbers of Washington's residents are driving with some level of impairment, that increasing percentages of schoolchildren are expelled for marijuana-related reasons, and that Washington’s purported legalization ‘did not diminish or eliminate the black market.’”


Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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