Public Safety & Justice

Governors of Legal Marijuana States Ask Feds Not to Interfere

by | April 5, 2017

By Laurel Andrews

Alaska and three other western states on Monday asked the Trump administration not to scrap federal policies that have served as the foundation for state cannabis industries.

Existing federal policy is "vital to maintaining control over marijuana in our states" says a letter dated April 3, signed by Gov. Bill Walker and the governors of Oregon, Washington and Colorado. All four states have regulated commercial cannabis industries.

"We ask the Trump Administration to engage with us before embarking on any changes," the letter says.

The letter is addressed to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Attorney General Jeff Sessions of the U.S. Justice Department. Sessions was outspoken about his opposition to legal marijuana while a member of the U.S. Senate.

"We understand you and others in the administration have some concerns regarding marijuana," says the letter. "We sympathize, as many of us expressed apprehensions before our states adopted current laws. As governors, we have committed to implementing the will of our citizens."

The letter points to two pieces of federal guidance the marijuana industry and state regulators rely on: The Cole Memorandum, and guidance to banks from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

The 2013 Cole Memo is a four-page document from the U.S. Department of Justice that outlines federal priorities for marijuana enforcement. It lists eight different scenarios with which the federal government is particularly concerned, like preventing pot from getting into the hands of minors, and preventing driving under the influence.

Alaska's regulators frequently invoke the memo when trying to decide state regulations, weighing whether potential rules might make ripples on the federal level.

The Cole Memo is "indispensable" and provides the foundation for state laws, the letter says.

"Changes that hurt the regulated market would divert existing marijuana product into the black market and increase dangerous activity in both our states and our neighboring states," the letter says.

The second set of guidelines concern banking. In 2014, the Department of the Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network published guidance for financial institutions seeking to provide services for marijuana businesses. It requires vigilant monitoring, and there are three different levels of reporting banks and credit unions are required to follow.

Without guidance, financial institutions would be less willing to provide banking for marijuana businesses, forcing those businesses to rely more on cash and increasing safety risks, the letter says.

In Alaska, banks have said they are staying out of the industry, although about half of marijuana cultivators paid their state taxes with a check or cashier's check in February.

Gov. Walker opposed Alaska's initiative that legalized commercial marijuana in November 2014. His spokesperson, Katie Marquette, wrote Monday that he was "upholding the will of the people" with his support in the letter.

Walker joins two of Alaska's federal lawmakers who have also waded into cannabis issues.

In March, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who also opposed Alaska's initiative to legalize marijuana, and Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren wrote a letter to Sessions asking for clarification on marijuana laws.

Meanwhile, Rep. Don Young has joined the newly formed Cannabis Caucus, vowing to pursue changes to banking and other federal laws regarding marijuana. Young, who has said he doesn't condone cannabis use but that it should be left up to the states, has said he wants to "educate" the administration on impacts of legalized marijuana.

Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana programs. Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized adult recreational use.

(c)2017 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska)

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