The federal government will not try to pre-empt Washington's
law allowing adults to use recreational marijuana.
In what state officials described as a "game changer", U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Thursday it will focus attention on several key areas of illegal marijuana production and sales, but will allow Washington and Colorado to continue setting up a system for legal marijuana to be grown and sold to adults.
Holder informed Gov. Jay Inslee by phone the Justice Department would not step in to challenge a system being set up in Washington after voters approved an initiative last November. The federal government was essentially allowing "the states to be the laboratory of democracy" on the issue, Inslee said.
In a memo released Thursday, the Justice Department said it will concentrate its marijuana enforcement efforts on eight key areas, including whether the drug is being sold to minors and keeping legally grown marijuana within the state's borders.
The state shares those priorities, Inslee said. The Washington State Liquor Control Board is setting up its regulations for people who grow, process or sell the drugs in a way that should comply with those priorities.
But until Holder's announcement, the board couldn't be sure the federal government would allow the state to put those rules into effect by Dec. 1, the date established in Initiative 502.
"This is obviously a game changer," Chris Marr, a member of the liquor board, said. The board has a meeting next week on the latest draft of rules for people seeking licenses to enter some phase of the legal marijuana business.
Holder's announcement and the four page memo don't answer all the questions surrounding the efforts to set up a state system for a product that is banned under federal law. There's still no clear direction on how marijuana businesses will be able to set up operations restricted under federal banking laws. At present, they can't open accounts, which means they can't accept credit or debit cards, issue checks or make electronic transfers to the state for taxes and fees. Some medical marijuana operations have been taking large sums of cash to Department of Revenue offices to pay their taxes.
"There are some important details to be worked out," Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said.
Among those details could be greater restrictions on medical marijuana, which was legalized earlier, in a separate voter initiative. Medical marijuana dispensaries in Spokane have been raided and closed by federal officials.
Mike Ormsby, U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington, said Thursday his office will continue to concentrate on sales to minors, violence, and trafficking across state lines, and on operations tied to organized crime.
But Ormsby also signaled he will keep up pressure on medical marijuana operations, saying "the continued operation and proliferation of unregulated, for-profit entities outside of the state's regulatory and licensing scheme is not tenable." Medical marijuana remains largely unregulated, although state agencies are studying changes that could prompt new legislation next year.
"We believe there are some serious changes that need to be brought to bear," Inslee said.
The Justice Department's new policy on marijuana enforcement, considered a significant change from its earlier position, spells out eight areas where federal agents with concentrate their efforts.
But Holder gave Washington and Colorado a qualified green light to proceed with their efforts to legalize the drug for recreational use if there regulations can avoid those areas.
"The Department expects these states to establish strict regulatory schemes that protect the eight federal interests identified in the Department's guidance," Holder said. "These schemes must be tough in practice, not just on paper, and include strong, state-based enforcement efforts, backed by adequate funding."
For the time being, he said, the federal government is "deferring its right to challenge their legalization laws at this time."
It could in the future, however, change its mind if problems arise in the states, he added.
Washington voters approved Initiative 502 last year, which allows for recreational use of marijuana by persons over 21, in private. It also places the state Liquor Control Board in charge of developing rules for the growing, processing and sale of legal marijuana. The board is working on its third draft of rules, scheduled for release early next month, to be followed by at least one public hearing before the board will vote on whether to adopt them in October. The initiative requires the rules to be in place by early December.
The board said it expects legal marijuana businesses to be operating by the spring of 2014.
Although state law makes marijuana legal under some circumstances in Washington, it remains an illegal drug, for all purposes, under federal law.
A copy of the memo on marijuana enforcement can be found at the Justice Department's website.
(c)2013 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)
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Distributed by MCT Information Services
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