U.S. Attorney Warns Oregon About Recreational Marijuana Boom

Will faulty, incomplete statistics be used to justify a crackdown?


Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA/Newscom

A guest commentary in The Oregonian today should concern marijuana growers in the Beaver State. A U.S. attorney is hinting he may unleash some sort of action against Oregon's pot industry.

Billy J. Williams, the U.S. attorney for Oregon, is concerned about the amount of marijuana being shipped out of the state. Police have seized more than a ton of pot in outbound parcels for 2017 and more than $1 million in cash. Oregon, he concludes, has an "overproduction" problem.

He then claims that "overproduction creates a powerful profit incentive." This gets the economics backwards: Producing too much of something drives its market value downward. What he means is that the excess production of marijuana is pushing producers to find someplace else to sell it, i.e., in states where recreational use is still illegal.

But that's a demand problem, isn't it? Williams complains about black and gray markets that are entirely a consequence of the government insisting on criminalizing a product that Americans want to buy and consume.

Williams also blames Congress for marijuana's persistence as a federally forbidden drug under the Controlled Substance Act, even though the Drug Enforcement Agency has the authority to reschedule it administratively.

Williams doesn't appear to be threatening an immediate crackdown, and casual pot users are probably under no threat of federal prosecution. But he doesn't like the way Oregon is handling legalization, and he's doing the sort of fearmongering that officials tend to do when they're preparing to act:

We also know that even recreational marijuana permitted under state law carries ill-effects on public health and safety, as Colorado's experience shows. Since 2013, marijuana-related traffic deaths have doubled in Colorado. Marijuana-related emergency and hospital admissions have increased 35 percent. And youth marijuana use is up 12 percent, 55 percent higher than the national average. We must do everything in our power to avoid similar trends here in Oregon.

Funny, he notices those trends but fails to mention that Colorado has also seen a decline in opioid-related deaths since the state legalized marijuana, a contrast to the overdose crisis that the Justice Department is allegedly very concerned about. Medical marijuana use in New Mexico is also associated with reduced use of opioids. Perhaps Williams should consider the lives potentially being saved by all that pot being exported to other states?

While he's at it, maybe he should read Reason's Jacob Sullum explain that marijuana-related traffic deaths in Colorado have not in fact doubled and that marijuana use among teens in Colorado is actually going down, not up.

Williams adds:

In the coming days, I will send invitations to federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement, public health organizations, Oregon marijuana interests and concerned citizen groups to attend a summit to address and remedy these and other concerns.

This summit and the state's response will inform our federal enforcement strategy. How we move forward will depend in large measure on how the state responds to the gaps we have identified. Until then it would be an inappropriate abdication of my duties to issue any blanket proclamations on our marijuana enforcement strategy in light of federal law.

The logical conclusion here is that Williams is attempting to feel out whether there will be a big local backlash if he does crack down on marijuana. He wants to hear people complain that there isn't enough policing going on.