Feds threaten crackdown if medical-pot makeover becomes law
Washington's top federal prosecutors have threatened to crack down if the state goes forward with a proposal to legalize medical-marijuana dispensaries and growers, putting in jeopardy a bill that had already passed both chambers of the Legislature.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Washington's top federal prosecutors have threatened to crack down if the state goes forward with a proposal to legalize medical-marijuana dispensaries and growers, putting in jeopardy a bill that has already passed both chambers of the Legislature.
In a letter to Gov. Chris Gregoire on Thursday, U.S. Attorneys Jenny Durkan of Seattle and Michael Ormsby of Spokane wrote that the bill would undermine drug enforcement and could result in an array of prosecutions or civil penalties against dispensary owners and growers, as well as against state regulators enforcing the proposed law.
The prosecutors were responding to Gregoire's request a day earlier for "clear guidance" about the legislative proposal, a sweeping expansion of the state's 1998 voter-approved medical-marijuana law.
"In light of the Department of Justice's guidance, it is clear that I cannot sign a bill that authorizes our state employees to license marijuana dispensaries when the department would prosecute those involved," Gregoire said in a statement Thursday evening. She pledged to work with lawmakers on a new proposal.
The bill, SB 5073, is the most sweeping rewrite yet of the 1998 initiative legalizing medical marijuana. It is a response to pressure from municipal governments and police unsettled about a statewide boom in dispensaries, which were neither specifically allowed nor banned under existing law.
Durkan and Ormsby's letter indicated no such ambiguity. Citing federal law outlawing marijuana cultivation and sale, they wrote that, in addition to targeting dispensaries and growers, federal agents could go after their landlords and financiers.
And state employees who would inspect and audit dispensaries and growers under the bill "would not be immune from liability" under federal drug laws, the prosecutors wrote.
Durkan, in a separate statement, said her office policy has not changed. Her staff has not prosecuted medical-marijuana patients or doctors who help them, but her office would prioritize prosecutions involving for-profit marijuana sales, drug-trafficking groups and "doctors who abuse their positions and fraudulently certify individuals as medical-marijuana patients."
Supporters of the bill said the letter is no reason to kill the legislation. It is similar to ones sent out by U.S. attorneys in other states that allow medical marijuana, and contains no new information about federal drug-control policy, said Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the ACLU of Washington.
"It looks like a threat, but it hasn't played out in other states with medical-marijuana dispensaries on the books," she said. "The feds have to say what they've said, but it's all theoretical."
Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, the prime sponsor of the bill, said she was encouraged that the measure could still be passed after talking with Gregoire on Thursday evening. She said legislative staffers were working on alternatives. "We're looking at a brand new approach," she said, without elaborating.
In addition to legalizing dispensaries, the bill would grant patients strong new protections from arrest and prosecution, a provision long sought by patient advocates. It also would allow community marijuana gardens for authorized patients.
If the Legislature were to rewrite it, one alternative could be to require dispensaries and growers to be nonprofits. But the Internal Revenue Service requires an organization to have a lawful purpose to qualify for nonprofit status.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law and cannot be prescribed because it, along with LSD and heroin, is classified as a Schedule I drug.
Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department has a largely hands-off approach to medical-marijuana patients. An October 2009 memo, issued shortly after Attorney General Eric Holder took over, says patients who were in "clear and unambiguous compliance" with state laws were not a department priority.
But the memo emphasized that "commercial enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana for profit continues to be an enforcement priority."
That remains the department's position, spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said in an email. "We are not going to look the other way while significant drug-trafficking organizations try and shield their illegal efforts from investigation and prosecution through the pretense that they are medical dispensaries," she wrote.
Northern California's top federal prosecutor in February had threated to charge operators of a huge commercial marijuana farm licensed by the city of Oakland. Federal agents recently raided dispensaries in Montana, Michigan and California.
Earlier this month, Ormsby, the U.S. attorney in Spokane, warned in a news release that "marijuana stores" are illegal and urged property owners who rent to medical-marijuana dispensaries to evict their clients or potentially face forfeiture actions.
"We are preparing for quick and direct action against the operators of the stores," Ormsby wrote.
By some estimates, at least 129 dispensaries have sprouted statewide in the past year and a half, leaving cities and police uncertain whether to crack down on what appear to be illegal sales or to allow much broader access for sick patients who struggle to grow their own, legal medicine. As a result, enforcement varies by city, creating pressure on the Legislature to act.
The pending bill would give Washington, one of 15 states that allows medical marijuana, one of the most expansive regulatory arrangements in the nation.
It would require testing of marijuana to ensure quality, and license processors of cannabis-infused food. It would also ban medical-marijuana use from being a factor in housing and child-custody issues.
A marijuana advocacy group, Sensible Washington, is gathering signatures to put a legalization initiative on the November ballot.
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or email@example.com
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