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Originally published July 28, 2014 at 9:03 PM | Page modified July 28, 2014 at 10:39 PM

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Senators ask White House to clarify federal pot laws

The U.S. senators from Washington and Colorado have asked the White House to reconcile conflicting guidelines from federal agencies on how they intend to enforce federal marijuana laws in states where recreational pot is legal.


Seattle Times Washington bureau

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Spurred by the recent Interior Department decision to block the use of federal irrigation water to cultivate marijuana, the four U.S. senators from Washington and Colorado want the White House to direct federal agencies to adopt uniform guidelines impacting recreational pot.

In a letter Monday to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the lawmakers said the water ruling conflicts with earlier guidelines issued by the Justice and Treasury departments that seek to enforce the federal ban on marijuana only selectively.

The appeal is signed by Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington and Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado. All four are Democrats and represent the two states that have legalized and regulated the recreational sale of marijuana.

The letter is part of an effort to prod Congress to eventually amend the federal Controlled Substances Act to allow states to operate legal marijuana markets — and remove the possibility of federal prosecution on a range of activities related to selling and using pot.

Both the Justice and Treasury departments have issued memorandums outlining how they would apply prosecutorial discretion to marijuana violations. Among their priorities will be to keep kids away from pot, go after gangs and cartels, prevent drugged driving and maintain the ban on marijuana possession or use on federal property.

In May, however, Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation announced it would not allow its facilities or water to be used for marijuana cultivation. The agency, which provides water to local irrigation districts, said it would report known instances where federal water was being used to grow pot plants.

The bureau’s differing interpretation of its legal duty under the Controlled Substances Act, the lawmakers said, made it incumbent on the Obama administration to ensure consistency.

“We believe it is appropriate for the White House to assume a central and coordinating role for this governmentwide approach,” the lawmakers wrote.

Alison Holcomb, the criminal-justice director for the ACLU of Washington and an author of Washington’s marijuana law, said clear directives from the White House would help stave off potential conflicts.

For instance, Washington law directs that 1 percent of the excise tax slapped on pot sales goes to the University of Washington and Washington State University to research the short- and long-term effects of marijuana use.

But under federal law, researchers could not handle samples of Washington-grown pot without risking prosecution. Currently, all marijuana federally approved for research must come from a government-contracted farm at the University of Mississippi.

In addition, Holcomb said, it’s possible federal highway funds could be jeopardized if marijuana is transported on federally funded roads. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal law that withheld 5 percent of federal highway funds from states whose minimum drinking ages were under 21, the federal requirement.

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com. Twitter @KyungMSong



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