- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2017

Amid uncertainty over the Trump administration’s willingness to allow states’ recreational marijuana markets to flourish, lawmakers from those states are taking proactive steps to protect their newly legal pot industries from a federal crackdown.

In California, state lawmakers have introduced legislation that would block local police and sheriff’s departments from assisting federal agencies in any marijuana-related investigation into a person or business that is compliant with the state’s own marijuana laws.

Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, the lead author of the bill, recounted the harassment that medical marijuana dispensaries endured from law enforcement when they first opened in California and stressed that the proposal is about “protecting those who are lawful under California laws.” The bill would not prevent local police from aiding federal law enforcement in investigations of those violating state law.

California is one of eight states where voters approved ballot initiatives legalizing recreational marijuana. It became legal to posses the drug in California last year, but regulations over sales licensing are still in the works and the state’s first dispensaries are not expected to open until next year.

Drug reform advocates say there is concern among those either already active in the marijuana industry or preparing to open pot shops about whether the Trump administration, particularly Attorney General Jeff Sessions, will direct federal agencies to dismantle the recreational market.

“We have this situation now where we are waiting to see what Jeff Sessions and his Department of Justice will do and how that will impact states like California,” said Michael Collins, the Drug Policy Alliance’s deputy director of national affairs.

But based on the Trump administration’s own difference in tone regarding medical and recreational marijuana, Colorado lawmakers have devised what some say could be an exit strategy to put to use in case the federal government cracks down on legalized recreational use.

A bill introduced in Colorado would allow pot growers or retailers to reclassify their recreational marijuana as medical marijuana “based on a business need due to a change in local, state, or federal law or enforcement policy.”

If federal authorities start seizing recreational pot, Colorado’s recreational marijuana entrepreneurs “need to be able to convert that product into the medical side so they can sell it,” Sen. Tim Neville, a Denver Republican who sponsored the bill, told The Associated Press.

“If there is a change in federal law, then I think all of our businesses want to stay in business somehow. They’ve made major investments,” Mr. Neville said.

In Oregon, lawmakers are taking steps to shield the identities of recreational marijuana users. A proposal approved by the Oregon Senate this month would require marijuana retailers to purge all customer records, including their names, birth dates, driver’s license numbers or other identifying information. Such activity is either prohibited or discouraged in Alaska, Colorado and Washington state.

Marijuana currently remains illegal under federal law, though the Obama Justice Department in 2013 announced guidelines that limited federal enforcement of marijuana laws in states that had opted to legalize medical or recreational use.

Mr. Sessions has spoken out in opposition to legalization efforts in the past and more recently has expressed skepticism about relaxed attitudes toward pot, saying that “medical marijuana has been hyped, maybe too much.” He has not indicated if he plans to roll back or revise the Obama guidelines, commonly referred to as the Cole memo, or to otherwise step up enforcement. He has previously said that the Cole memo offers some points of value in terms of enforcement priorities, but that the policy is under review.

“We’re going to look at it and try to adopt responsible policies,” Mr. Sessions said during a briefing with reporters in February. “States, they can pass the laws they choose. I would just say it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not.”

Federal lawmakers are also taking steps to bridge the gap between state and federal marijuana laws, with a coalition of congressmen introducing a package of marijuana reform legislation.

Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, both Oregon Democrats, on Thursday introduced three bills that would remove marijuana from the list of federally banned drugs and allow it to be taxed and regulated like alcohol; repeal federal criminal penalties related to marijuana in states where individuals or businesses are following the applicable state laws; and allow marijuana businesses to claim tax credits.

With more than 20 percent of Americans residing in states where recreational use of marijuana is legal, the lawmakers said the legislation is meant to protect decisions that state residents have backed.

“The federal government must respect the decision Oregonians made at the polls and allow law-abiding marijuana businesses to go to the bank just like any other legal business,” said Mr. Wyden. “This three-step approach will spur job growth and boost our economy all while ensuring the industry is being held to a fair standard.”

The bills introduced include:

• Small Business Tax Equity Act, which would repeal the tax penalty that singles out state-legal marijuana businesses and bars them from claiming deductions and tax credits.

• Responsibly Addressing the Marijuana Policy Gap Act, which would address discrepancies in federal and state marijuana laws by removing federal criminal penalties and civil asset forfeiture for individuals and businesses acting in compliance with state law.

• Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act, which would remove marijuana from the list of banned controlled substances and establish a scheme to tax and regulate its sale.

Mr. Jones-Sawyer, the California assemblyman, expressed doubt that the Republican-led Congress would pass marijuana reform. Instead, he said it will be up to state legislatures to protect the will of voters approved marijuana legalization measures in their states.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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