Legislature's inaction leaves medical pot system in legal haze
The future of medical marijuana in the state is in question after legislators failed to agree on regulations. Western Washington’s federal prosecutor now says all dispensaries are illegal and violators could be prosecuted according to priorities outlined by the Justice Department.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Federal Marijuana Priorities
The Department of Justice has said legal pot commerce is allowed in Washington as long as merchants adhere to eight priorities:
• Keeping pot from minors;
• Keeping pot money from going to organized crime;
• Keeping pot from going to other states;
• Preventing legal pot from being a cover for illegal activities;
• Keeping violence and firearms out of legal pot;
• Preventing drugged driving;
• Keeping pot-growing off public lands;
• Keeping pot off federal property.
U.S. Department of Justice
The future of the state’s medical-marijuana system remains in limbo after state lawmakers failed to adopt regulations for a market that Western Washington’s top federal prosecutor has called “not tenable.”
When the Legislature adjourned Thursday, attention quickly turned to U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan and whether she would target existing growers and businesses in Washington’s largely unregulated medical system.
Durkan said Friday that all medical-marijuana dispensaries in the state are illegal and the feds would focus on those implicated in any of eight Department of Justice (DOJ) priorities laid out last year, such as money-laundering, taking pot across state lines and supplying minors.
She also noted, during an appearance on KUOW, that some Seattle high schools are reporting increased use of pot by students and suggested the availability of medical marijuana is one reason why.
Her comments were not comforting to some. “That doesn’t give patients much reassurance that we won’t be targets,” said Kari Boiter, state coordinator for the largest national medical-marijuana advocacy group, Americans for Safe Access.
But state lawmakers and a spokesman for Gov. Jay Inslee said there is still time to fix the medical system before the feds might crack down in sweeping fashion. The Legislature is not scheduled to convene again until January.
No one should take the Legislature’s inaction “to mean Washington state is not going to regulate medical marijuana,” said David Postman, spokesman for Inslee. In an eleventh-hour effort, Inslee personally urged lawmakers Thursday night to come up with regulations.
But on the last night of the session, regulations were doomed by politics, other legislative priorities and lobbying by medical-marijuana interests that wanted to kill a rushed, scaled-down bill coming out of the House.
“Even with the help of the governor, it was too much to get beyond at the eleventh hour,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, sponsor of a bill with wide-ranging regulations that passed out of the Senate last week.
Rivers’ bill ran into opposition in the House from Republicans who wanted a cut of recreational pot taxes to go to cities and counties. Because her bill would have amended Initiative 502, which legalized recreational pot, it required a two-thirds supermajority.
House Democratic leaders want data on the impacts of recreational marijuana before sharing tax revenues with cities and counties.
Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, noted that ultimately House Democrats tried to pass medical regulations without tax-sharing, meaning they needed only a simple majority. But Democrats couldn’t muster that majority within their own ranks, he said.
Some lawmakers said Inslee now needs to create a task force — or some kind of group — to recommended changes to the medical system and show federal prosecutors some progress.
But Inslee isn’t planning that at this time, said Postman, who was skeptical that a task force would sway the DOJ if officials there were inclined to crack down.
“I don’t think we need a task force per se,” Rivers said. “As long as we have interested parties engaged, I think we can get it done without a formal title.”
Maintaining the status quo will please some in the medical industry who lobbied against regulations, said House Finance Chair Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle.
“This was straight-up political hardball. Let’s not pretend there wasn’t a well-orchestrated effort (to kill the House bill) and there isn’t tens of millions of dollars, if not more, at stake,” Carlyle said.
About 200 dispensaries in Seattle now need help from City Hall.
In adopting zoning for marijuana businesses last year, the City Council passed a provision requiring them, including dispensaries, to have a state license by Jan. 1, 2015.
The council believed that by next year state lawmakers would have reconciled the medical system with the new recreational industry, and medical operations would be licensed by the state.
City Councilmember Sally Clark, a sponsor of that zoning law, said it was premature to predict the city’s next move. “My hope is the Legislature recognizes that local jurisdictions are desperate for clarity,” Clark said. “I don’t know now that we’ll say, ‘Yeah, we’ll shut you down on January first.’”
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or email@example.com
On Twitter: @potreporter