Washington and Colorado officials can exhale: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will give them space to implement laws allowing the production, sale and use of marijuana.
They have been holding their breath since voters approved initiatives permitting activity that violates federal statutes. Despite obvious public support for the liberalization of marijuana use, federal law enforcement officers and prosecutors have continued raids on medical marijuana shops in several states.
Businesses selling the weed were in legal limbo; never knowing if and when agents would come through the doors. How aggressively the law was enforced was the call of U.S. attorneys who might prosecute, or not.
Holder has been sending mixed, though encouraging, signals. Thursday, apparently satisfied that Washington and Colorado will have adequate regulations in place – and the enforcement to back them up – he issued guidance that set boundaries for the two states and any others that may also legalize recreational marijuana use.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Attorney General Bob Ferguson and their Colorado allies, along with the Liquor Control Board and staff, deserve a lot of credit for developing rules that satisfied Holder’s requirements. Foremost: preventing marijuana use by minors, and the export of Washington- or Colorado-grown weed to other states. Proposed Washington rules already address Holder’s concerns.
But rule-making will be the easy part.
Hundreds attended hearings, indicating a strong interest among would-be marijuana entrepreneurs. Yet the areas where communities like Spokane will permit the sale of marijuana are limited. The Pasco City Council may vote tonight on a six-month delay before marijuana businesses are allowed to open.
Tracking marijuana from seed to sale will be complex. The Liquor Control Board has promised “robust” enforcement, and businesses will be required to take tight security measures.
The biggest loose end? What to do with the money.
Financial institutions are not allowed to conduct transactions related to drug sales. If patrons cannot pay with a credit card, for example, sales will be cash-only, creating an obvious potential for robbery. Will regulations be modified to permit deposits from marijuana businesses? Even the state, which anticipates new revenues from taxing marijuana, could be ensnared.
Law enforcement groups reacted angrily to Holder’s announcement, but spouted the tired war-on-drugs platitudes that have not solved the problem despite decades of trying.
Advocates for more liberal marijuana laws are disappointed Holder did not go beyond the “prosecutorial guidance” that does not shut the door to enforcement even if states comply with the conditions set Thursday.
The decriminalization of recreational marijuana use is overdue. The onus is on Washington and Colorado to prove that it can work, and quickly. If they fail, the next attorney general may not be so accommodating.