After meeting with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions Tuesday, Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson said he did not get the sense that the nation’s top law enforcement officer is planning a federal crackdown on states that have already legalized marijuana.
But Sessions made his staunch opposition to the drug clear to a participant who expressed support for Washington’s legalization of marijuana for recreational use.
“He let him know that he is not a fan of legalized marijuana, does not support legalized marijuana and will not support the legalization of marijuana,” Nelson said of the exchange in an interview. “He spoke pretty strongly and pretty directly on that topic.”
Nelson said he doesn’t expect a major shift in federal policy toward states that have voted to legalize marijuana, though. The drug has been legal in Washington since 2012, when residents voted to allow people aged 21 and older to possess small amounts for recreational use.
“The impression I got was that he was talking more philosophically,” Nelson said.
Under federal law, marijuana is classified as a “Schedule 1” narcotic — the same level as heroin, LSD and cocaine. Nelson said he also opposes legalizing marijuana, both personally and professionally, because he doesn’t agree with the message it sends.
Sessions was in the region earlier this week visiting family in Bremerton, Wash. He later traveled to Portland to deliver remarks slamming so-called sanctuary cities, which prohibit local police officers from assisting federal agents with immigration enforcement.
Nelson’s invitation came via email from Annette Hays, the assistant U.S. attorney general for Western Washington. Upon arrival, he was guided into a conference room at the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building in downtown Seattle with just under 20 law enforcement officials from across the region, including the sheriffs of Wahkiakum and Pacific counties.
Nelson said that it’s the first time in his eight-year tenure as sheriff that he’s met with a cabinet-level official. Nelson became president of the Washington State Sheriff’s Association in June of last year; he served for the previous four years as the secretary/treasurer and vice-president of the association.
“This is the first time I’ve been invited, certainly, by a sitting cabinet member … someone of (Session’s) status in the federal government who’s reached out and said they’d like to meet with law enforcement,” he told The Daily News. “It’s nice to have kind of an overt support for law enforcement and we’re seeing that a little bit more.”
Nelson said the meeting covered a wide range of topics that included federal drug enforcement policy, the national opioid crisis, and immigration and border control.
Nelson, who recently traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona, said he personally raised the issue of border security with Sessions after a discussion about the 55,000 opioid-related deaths that occurred nationwide in 2015.
“We talked about how that’s a huge number and we have to do something about that,” Nelson said.
Nelson said he noted that roughly 96 percent percent of all illegal drugs in the United States are smuggled through Mexico.
“Some of those drugs end up in my county,” he said. Cowlitz County has one of the highest rates of opioid-related deaths in the state.
Nelson said a solution to the drug problem will require a collaborative effort between the federal government, border security officials and local law enforcement.
“At the same time, we have to be addressing the huge needs we have in treatment and prevention,” Nelson said.
Nelson also said the controversial issue of “detainer requests” was broached during the meeting.
Earlier this year, Nelson confirmed in a letter on behalf of sheriffs in the state that local law enforcement would continue to reject Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to detain suspected illegal aliens for up to 48 hours past their release dates.
Nelson said the Pacific Northwest handles detainer requests differently from other parts of the country partly due to a nearby U.S. District Court judge’s ruling.
In that 2014 ruling, a federal judge in Portland ruled that Clackamas County sheriff’s deputies had violated a woman’s constitutional rights by honoring a detainer request from ICE without any other reason to hold her.
In a letter submitted to ICE in April, Nelson said sheriffs in Washington support and cooperate with ICE but “we also swore an oath to follow the law and obey the constitution.”
Nelson said there was no specific agenda for the meeting and politics did not come up.
Sessions, a former Republican senator from Alabama, was one of the first congressional lawmakers to endorse Donald Trump for president. Trump later appointed Sessions to lead the Justice Department. But in March, Sessions recused himself from an investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia after it was learned that he failed to disclose contacts with Russian officials during the campaign.
More recently, he’s weathered a flurry of verbal jabs from Trump, who said in an interview with The New York Times that he never would have appointed Sessions if he knew he would recuse himself.
“I found him to be very sincere, very open, and he didn’t back down from any questions,” Nelson said. “It was really just an opportunity to have some open dialogue and in that regard it was fairly successful.”