US Attorney Details Cannabis Enforcement in Light of Oregon’s Oversupply

U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon Billy J. Williams, left, speaks at a Feb. 2 cannabis summit in Portland, Ore., as Oregon Gov. Kate Brown sits at right. The U.S. Attorney for Oregon said in a memo released Friday that he will prioritize enforcement of marijuana overproduction and interstate trafficking in the state. Williams is the first U.S. attorney to detail his strategy for enforcing federal drug laws in a state where marijuana is legal. The memo comes three months after Williams convened a summit in Portland to discuss what he calls a ``significant overproduction`` of marijuana in the state that's driving an illicit market and illegal trafficking to other states that have not legalized pot. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The illcit market for marijuana is thriving in Oregon and an oversupply of cannabis from growers is flowing to more than two dozen states where pot remains illegal, a top federal law enforcement official said Friday.

U.S. Attorney Billy Williams said the state has a “significant overproduction” problem and that he would prioritize enforcement of overproduction, interstate trafficking, organized crime and cases involving underage marijuana use and environmental damage from illicit pot farms.

RELATED STORY
Oregon Steps Up Penalties for Cannabis Sales to Minors

The comments, which echoed those he made earlier this year, were included in a memo that outlines his plans for enforcing federal drug laws in a state with legalized marijuana. Williams is the first U.S. attorney to issue such guidance after Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Obama administration’s guidance on pot-friendly states in January.

“I applaud him for not wasting any taxpayer dollars on trying to mess with the legal system as it's set up.”
Brent Kenyon, cannabis consultant

“As the primary law enforcement official in Oregon, I will not make broad proclamations of blanket immunity from prosecution to those who violate federal law,” he wrote.

Sessions asked federal prosecutors to determine cannabis policies for their districts, prompting Williams to convene a summit in Portland earlier this year to discuss the state’s oversupply problem. At the time, Williams also penned an editorial that described a glut of marijuana making its way out of the state illegally and called for action by local and state leaders.

Those in the cannabis industry reacted with cautious optimism to the memo and said it didn’t seem to change federal marijuana policy in Oregon.

RELATED STORY
Oregon Cannabis Growers Turning to Hemp as CBD Extract Booms

“I think that’s already what law enforcement was focusing on and we need to crack down on the illegal grows out there, which is not good for the legal market either,” said Brent Kenyon, who runs a consulting business that helps entrepreneurs set up pot businesses.

“I applaud him for not wasting any taxpayer dollars on trying to mess with the legal system as it’s set up.”

The state currently has nearly 1 million pounds (453,592 kilograms) of marijuana flower in inventory, a staggering amount for a state with a population of 4.1 million people. That doesn’t include 350,000 pounds (158,757 kilograms) of cannabis edibles, tinctures and concentrates.

The retail price for a gram of pot has fallen about 50 percent since 2015, from $14 to $7, according to a report by the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis. Legal growers and retailers alike have felt the sting.

RELATED STORY
Here’s What a Gram of Cannabis Costs in Cities Around the World

The true amount of marijuana leaving the state is hard to pin down, said Beau Whitney, a senior economist at New Frontier Data, a national cannabis analytics firm.

The state has 21 million square feet (195 hectares) of legal cannabis growing and a $1 billion market statewide, he said. Of that, about one-third — or about $300 million — is diverted to the illegal market within the state, but it is not clear how much is leaving Oregon, he added.

The amount being grown legally is “more than enough to handle all of the demand in Oregon and so to me, it’s no wonder that there’s excess supply in the space. What people choose to do with it, it’s tough to estimate,” Whitney said.

“They’re saying, ‘If you’re exporting, then we’re going to come down on you.”

To that end, Williams said Oregon needs to do a better job at gathering data about the cannabis industry and devote more resources to enforcement and oversight. Federal prosecutors have finite resources in Oregon, he wrote, and they will “strategically consider” which cases to pursue, in some cases favoring asset forfeiture and other civil punishments over criminal prosecutions.