Amid concerns that the Trump administration could stymie state-legal cannabis, Washington state lawmakers have quietly introduced bipartisan legislation that would protect the state’s system from federal intervention by barring local officials from cooperating with the feds.
It’s yet another sign of uncertainty as legal states wait to see how President Donald Trump and his Justice Department, likely to be led by Sen. Jeff Sessions, handle the ongoing conflict between state and federal law.
Many are concerned that Sessions, whose nomination for US attorney general is slated for a full Senate vote on Wednesday, could seek to undo state cannabis programs. In confirmation hearings, he dodged senators’ questions about whether he intends to follow Obama-era DOJ policies that served to protect legal state systems, saying only that he will “review and evaluate those policies.”
House Bill 1895, sponsored by state Reps. David Sawyer (D-Lakewood), Cary Condetta (R-Wenatchee), Brandon Vick (R-Vancouver), and David Taylor (R-Moxee), is an answer to that response. It would attempt to protect the state’s cannabis program from federal intervention by “prohibiting the use of public resources to assist the federal government in any activity that might impede or interfere with Washington state’s regulation of marijuana and marijuana-related products.” Public employees would be forbidden from using their on-the-clock time or state resources to aid a federal action “that might have the effect of impeding, obstructing, or otherwise interfering” with the state’s cannabis system.
Under the proposal, officials who aid the feds would face disciplinary action and could even lose their jobs.
While it’s generally not the role of local authorities to enforce federal law, it’s quite common for police and federal law enforcement to team up on investigations and enforcement actions. That’s been especially true when it comes to cannabis. In some cases, local governments trying to shutter unwanted cannabis businesses have called in the feds as backup. In 2011 and 2012, partly in response to such requests, US attorneys in California shuttered hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries across the state.
If passed, Washington’s bill would primarily benefit cannabis businesses, which have historically faced the brunt of federal enforcement efforts. While the DOJ could technically target patients—and has in the past—it has tended to focus on dispensaries and other larger-scale operations.
Nothing in the bill would prevent the feds themselves from going after state cannabis—nor could it keep the federal government from challenging the underlying legitimacy of state cannabis laws, which conflict with the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Some small efforts are already underway to provide more durable protections at the federal level. Congress in December extended the so-called Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, a spending provision that prevents federal prosecutors from using DOJ resources to prosecute state-legal medical cannabis. That extension expires in April. Last year the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the provision, swatting down a federal enforcement action against Oakland, California’s high-profile Harborside Health Center dispensary.
More broadly, congressional representatives have introduced a pair of bills that would reschedule cannabis to a Schedule II controlled substance and entirely de-schedule cannabidiol (CBD), cannabis’s primary non-intoxicating compound.
Members of Congress have also begun organizing to form a Cannabis Caucus aimed at expanding access to medical marijuana and supporting the ability of states to craft their own cannabis policies. The group is expected to step up its activity later this month.