Oregon's Interim US Attorney Billy Williams recently got a vote of confidence from Donald Trump to continue at his post. Now Williams might have an outsize say in whether a pot crackdown favored by Trump's attorney general moves forward in Oregon.
This morning, the Associated Press broke the (hardly surprising) news that Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to rescind the "Cole Memorandum," a 2013 document authored by Deputy Attorney General James Cole that set forth conditions states would have to meet to help ensure the feds didn't use federal drug laws to dismantle legal pot programs. According to the AP's report, Sessions will announce the move later today. And if the AP's correct, that will give Williams a lot of say.
The report says: "Sessions’ policy will let U.S. attorneys across the country decide what kinds of federal resources to devote to marijuana enforcement based on what they see as priorities in their districts, the people familiar with the decision said."
UPDATE, 10:18 am: Sessions did it.
Since marijuana is still highly illegal under federal law, getting the all clear from his boss would give Williams leverage to squeeze Oregon's 2.5-year-old recreational pot laws, even as it would undoubtedly make him unpopular with state officials and the public. News of Sessions plans are already rankling folks like Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer, who in a statement called the news "outrageous."
"Going against the majority of Americans—including a majority of Republican voters—who want the federal government to stay out of the way is perhaps one of the stupidest decisions the Attorney General has made," Blumenauer says.
US Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden have issued statements to the same effect.
Gov. Kate Brown agrees. Brown in a statement called reports of Sessions' plans "deeply concerning and disruptive to our state's economy."
"My staff and state agencies are working to evaluate reports of the Attorney General's decision and will fight to continue Oregon's commitment to a safe and prosperous recreational marijuana market," Brown said.
This wouldn't be the first time Brown and Sessions have tangled over legal pot. In August, Sessions sent letters to the governors of Oregon, Washington, and Colorado that seemed to suggest he was considering federal enforcement.
Brown responded with a letter that laid out the steps Oregon had taken to address federal concerns, and mentioned $60.2 million in tax revenue and 16,000 jobs (her statement today said 19,000) that legal pot had brought to the state.
Meanwhile, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum says she's ready to fight. "I value my working relationship with Oregon U.S. Attorney-nominee Bill Williams and I look forward to working with his office," Rosenblum said in a statement. "States up and down the West Coast, and beyond, have spoken. This is an industry that Oregonians have chosen—and one I will do everything within my legal authority to protect.”
The news is also sending the state's pot industry into a tizzy. Portland cannabis industry attorney Amy Margolis says she's been fielding calls all day from industry members who don't know what to think—and that she won't have clarity until Sessions and Williams make their feelings known.
"We're all just reacting to this," Margolis tells the Mercury. While the pot industry has long known that Sessions was an enemy, the fact that the US Department of Justice waited a year into Trump's presidency to make such a move—and allowed states like California and Nevada to build legal pot policies in the meantime—surprised Margolis.
"I think all of us are shocked," she says. "They let this continue to build. They let this continue to grow."
Her advice to worried clients, she says: "First and foremost, let's see what our United States attorney is going to do."
And of course, it's possible the move by Sessions won't mean much for how Williams treats Oregon's pot laws. Not a lot is clear right now about how US Attorneys in legal weed states are feeling. It's notable, though, that Williams recently received Trump's support. In November, Trump formally nominated Williams to be named Oregon's US Attorney. He'd been serving in an interim capacity after taking over for embattled former US Attorney Amanda Marshall.
His time since has been rocky. Williams' office famously failed to win convictions against the men who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. This reporter will also always remember the time Williams' cell phone began blaring a Wiz Khalifa song in the middle of a press conference, much to his consternation.
We've reached out to Williams' office and other officials to get a better sense of how this whole thing might play out. Stay tuned.