U.S. Attorney General has ‘serious concerns,’ but Gov. Walker stands behind legal marijuana

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has “serious questions” about Alaska’s legal marijuana industry, but Gov. Bill Walker is standing by the results of a 2014 ballot measure that created the industry.

On Tuesday, Walker’s administration — in response to requests from the Empire, Associated Press, Denver Post and other news organizations — released copies of letters sent from Sessions to Walker and from Walker to Sessions.

Sessions is opposed to legal marijuana, and Walker joined the governors of Washington, Oregon and Colorado in an April letter to Sessions. That letter asked Sessions to leave existing marijuana policy in place.

“As governors of states that have legalized marijuana in some form, we ask the Trump Administration to engage with us before embarking on any changes to regulatory and enforcement systems,” that letter began.

Marijuana remains federally illegal, but in a 2013 memo, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole issued a memorandum indicating that the federal government would make marijuana prosecution its lowest priority if states made sure their legal industries abided by a handful of standards.

That memo was the guiding document while President Obama remained in office, but in January, President Trump was inaugurated and Sessions was named Attorney General.

Sessions responded to the April message with letters to each governor, dated July 24. Each of those letters said police reports raised “serious questions about whether marijuana ‘regulatory structures’ will be effective in your state.”

Walker’s office received the letter Aug. 3 and responded on Monday, according to the released documents.

“With respect to marijuana, while we share your concern about the dangers of drug abuse, Alaskans voted to establish a regulated industry,” the governor wrote. “We ask that the Department of Justice maintain its existing marijuana policies because the state relied on those assurances in shaping our regulatory framework and because existing policies appropriately focus federal efforts on federal interests.”

“The letters speak for themselves,” said Walker’s deputy press secretary, Jonathon Taylor, by email when the Empire asked for additional comment. “Alaskans voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, and the governor and (state) attorney general are upholding the will of the people on the issue.”

Loren Jones, a Juneau Assemblyman and a member of the state Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office board, said the letters have not been presented to the AMCO board and he could not comment.

Cary Carrigan, executive director of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Alliance, praised the governor’s message.

“We’re really proud that we’ve got a governor that’s willing to stand up and take the time to make sure that state’s rights and the dictate of the public have been followed through,” he said.

In his July 24 letter to Walker, Sessions pointed to a 2015 drug report compiled by the Alaska State Troopers that cited youth marijuana statistics and said in part that “marijuana is available throughout the state and is often viewed as a gateway drug for young adults and teenagers.”

In his response this week, Walker pointed out that the troopers’ report was compiled more than a year before the legalized industry even began.

Walker wasn’t the only governor to respond to Sessions’ July 24 letter. On Tuesday, Washington state governor Jay Inslee sent a blistering response that accused Sessions of cherry-picking Washington state statistics that were “distorted” in the letter sent to him.

“… some of the statistics cited in your letter are simply incorrect, or based on a misreading of the context,” he wrote.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper told the Denver Post that he will be writing a similar letter to Sessions, and it is not clear whether Oregon Gov. Kate Brown will do the same.

While Alaska voters approved legal marijuana statewide, the issue is not entirely settled. Under the 2014 ballot measure, communities and boroughs can choose to forbid businesses (but not possession).

Earlier this year, Valdez voters upheld the legal industry in a vote there. In October, Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula Borough will hold local referendums on the topic.

Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 523-2258.

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