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Legal States Push Back Against Threat of Federal Marijuana Enforcement

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Several states with legal recreational-marijuana markets are considering bills to protect businesses and consumers in the event of a federal crackdown.

On Apr. 12, the Colorado State Senate approved SB 17-192, which would let cannabis businesses reclassify recreational marijuana as medical marijuana by transferring products to a medical licensee “based on a business need due to a change in local, state or federal law, or enforcement policy.” The bill, which would significantly decrease sales taxes collected on marijuana purchases (taxes on patients are lower than those on adult users) and excise taxes on businesses, cost the state more than $100 million. It’s awaiting a House vote.

On Apr. 17,Gov. Kate Brown signed the Oregon State Senate signed SB 863, which forbids cannabis retailers from retaining the personal information about cannabis consumers, such as birth dates and driver’s license numbers. While retailers in Oregon are required to see valid photo IDs to verify consumers are at least 21, the new law prohibits them from keeping information for purposes such as marketing, unless the consumers give them written permissions.

These bills are a reaction to  saber-rattling by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who on Feb. 23 predicted that recreational cannabis programs can expect to see “greater enforcement” from the federal government. Spicer drew a distinction between medical and adult-use cannabis, and said the administration would not go after patients.

Legislation is not the only way states can counteract the possible federal intervention. Both Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman have said they’re both ready to defend their states’ cannabis programs from attacks by the Trump administration.

Despite these efforts, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it clear that he does not support cannabis legalization in any form, noting that there’s “more violence around marijuana than one would think.” On Apr. 5, he announced in a memo that the Justice Department had formed a Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety that will “undertake a review of existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing and marijuana to ensure consistency with the Department’s overall strategy on reducing violent crime.”

To matters ever worse, Sessions has appointed former Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven H. Cook “to help undo the criminal justice policies of the Obama and former attorney general Eric Holder,” according to the the Washington Post. Like Sessions, Cook wants to turn the clock back to Reagan-era drug policies.

On Apr. 3, the governors of four states that have established legsl sales for adults—Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington—fired off a letter to Sessions and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, imploring them to “engage with us” before changing federal policies on enforcement. They outlined the importance of the Cole Memo and said they’re “ready to have further discussion on how these important federal policies work in our states. Twenty-eight states, representing more than 60% of Americans, have authorized some form of marijuana-related conduct. As we face the reality of these legalizations, we stand eager to work with our federal partners to address implementation and enforcement concerns cooperatively.”

Medical-cannabis patients and businesses are protected until Sept. 30 by the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment to the federal budget bill, which was extended by both houses of Congress on May 4. It prohibits the federal government from interfering with state medical-marijuana programs.

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