California Could Extend ‘Sanctuary State’ Status to Marijuana

Democratic lawmakers push back against Sessions reversal of Obama-era protections for pot

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Protecting the state's burgeoning cannabis industry is the latest front in California's war with the Trump administration, as state officials work to make California a so-called "sanctuary state" for the marijuana industry.

The effort borrows the sanctuary idea from a controversial California law passed last year limiting local law enforcement's efforts to work with federal authorities to arrest and deport illegal immigrants.

Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat who represents part of Los Angeles, is determined to protect the burgeoning billion-dollar marijuana industry in the state from federal prosecution by reviving a bill that stalled in the Senate in June after passing in the Assembly.

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While many states have decriminalized or legalized marijuana use, the drug is still illegal under federal law. Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this month moved to rescind the Obama-era hands-off policy on states with marijuana-friendly state laws just as California's law legalizing recreational use went into effect.

The move by Sessions allows federal prosecutors to crack down on marijuana growers and sellers but it does not direct them to do so or provide more resources to target the industry.

The Justice Department on Tuesday declined to comment on California's new legislative sanctuary push and would not forecast its enforcement plans. Before Gov. Jerry Brown signed the immigration sanctuary state bill into law, Sessions in September called the legislation "unconscionable" and a threat to public safety.

During his first week in office, President Donald Trump himself tried to cut off funds to cities and counties that prohibit local law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration authorities. A federal judge in San Francisco blocked the order in April, and the Justice Department filed a motion saying it would appeal in September.

So far, the Justice Department is keeping its federal marijuana enforcement plans close to the vest.

California law enforcement groups oppose the immigration sanctuary-state law, arguing that it limits their ability to remove dangerous, repeat offenders who are in the country illegally from their communities.

The California Police Chiefs Association and the California State Sheriffs' Association also came out against the marijuana sanctuary state bill last year, deriding it as another effort to tie their hands.

Assemblyman Jones-Sawyer says Sessions's action contradicts the wishes of California voters, labeling it an "outdated" throwback to the "federal war on drugs" that resulted in a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos behind bars.

Fifty-seven percent of Californians voted in favor of making recreational marijuana use legal in a 2016 state ballot initiative. He also argued the marijuana business has become too important to the state’s economy to crack down on it and said medical cannabis use is helping veterans deal with PTSD and cancer patients and the elderly to manage pain.

"The impacts of this ill-conceived and poorly executive war [on drugs] are still being felt by communities of color across the state," he said in a statement. "The last time California supported the federal government's efforts, families were torn apart and critical state resources were used to incarcerate more black and brown people than ever before in the history of our state."

Like the sanctuary state law, which restricted law enforcement's ability to cooperate with federal authorities to locate, arrest and deport illegal immigrants, Joes-Sawyer’s bill would prevent state and local agencies from working with federal drug enforcement agencies to arrest and prosecute legal marijuana growers and sellers without a federal court order.

Jones-Sawyer has said he has no problem with Sessions trying to target illegal marijuana businesses trying to operate in California. There are more than 100 legal cannabis businesses in the Los Angeles area, but there are also 1,400 illegal operations that need to abide by the law, he said.

"We remain opposed. This bill is misguided because it tries to keep state and local law enforcement from communicating with federal law enforcement," Cory Salzillo, CSSA's legislative director, told the Washington Free Beacon. "Federal law appears to be changing and we need to keep the ability to work together with law enforcement on all levels of government to continue to protect the public safety."

The proposed restrictions would make it particularly difficult to try to investigate a case involving allegations that a legal marijuana business is involved in other illegal activity that may or may not be related.

"Maybe someone who is licensed to sell marijuana is doing that legally but maybe they are doing something else behind the scenes. It makes it less clear what we can and cannot do," he said. "It's a blunt instrument that unless you have a court order, you can’t communicate. The question could become were you communicating about the legal side or something else – it’s not always clear cut."

Last week, Assemblyman Rob Bonta, a Democrat from Oakland, Calif., also took action to try to undercut any federal prosecutions against the state's marijuana growers, sellers and users. Bonta introduced a bill that would reclassify or expunge cannabis-related convictions from California residents' records. In this way, those convicted of marijuana-related crimes would not have to petition the courts to clear their records.

"Long after paying their debt to society, the collateral consequences of having a criminal conviction continues to disrupt their lives in profound ways such as preventing them from gaining employment or finding housing," Bonta said in a statement.

"This is a practical, common sense bill. These individuals are legally entitled to expungement or reduction and a fresh start. It should be implemented without necessary delay or burden."

If the federal government begins a new wave of enforcement against the marijuana industry in the state it could have a chilling effect on an industry that is expected to hit $6.5 billion in sales by 2020, according to New Frontier Data, a research firm that analyzes the industry.

State Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is engaged in a court fight with Trump over legal protections for immigrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, has said he is considering filing suit against Sessions on the marijuana issue as well.

He also has requested information from U.S. attorneys located in California who represent the federal government on how they plan to implement Sessions's marijuana policy—whether they plan to aggressively go after marijuana growers and sellers or only in cases that involve other serious criminal allegations.