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Editorial: Feds need to clear the air on marijuana regulation

The federal government continues its long, strange journey through a new landscape, where a majority of Americans would favor legalized marijuana and two states are attempting to implement their voters’ wishes.

It doesn’t help that Congress passed a misguided law four decades ago that has disoriented regulators from the beginning.

The latest twist is an FBI refusal to conduct background checks on people applying for marijuana businesses in Washington, even though it’s done so in Colorado. When Associated Press reporters sought the reason for the disparate treatment, the bureau referred them to the U.S. Justice Department, which has refused to clarify matters.

Then again, the agency has been inconsistent in deciding which laws it will or won’t enforce. In this case, the uncertainty makes it difficult to conduct business.

When marijuana initiatives passed in Washington and Colorado, they immediately ran afoul of federal law, which treats pot as a Schedule 1 drug, or tantamount to heroin. That’s absurd, but neither Congress nor the Drug Enforcement Agency has rescheduled pot. However, the DEA has twice revised the status of Marinol, a synthetic drug derived from THC, the substance in marijuana that produces a high. Marinol is treated like codeine.

If pot were granted the same Schedule 3 status, the haze hanging over state efforts to implement legalized pot would be lifted. Banks could accept pot revenue without worrying about federal punishment, the FBI could conduct background checks and federal law enforcement officers could move on to more important pursuits.

All members of the Washington delegation should be pushing for sanity when it comes to classifying pot. It is not, as Schedule 1 implies, as dangerous as heroin. It is not more dangerous than cocaine (Schedule 2). The cleanest solution would be for Congress to pass a revision to the Nixon-era law that produced this hysteria-driven mess.

In the meantime, the feds need to come up with a consistent strategy and stick to it.

After discussions with the governors of Washington and Colorado, the Justice Department issued a sensible statement last summer, saying it would back off as long as the states were diligent about keeping legal pot away from children and out of the clutches of criminals.

Background checks are an important tool in keeping marijuana businesses above board. When Colorado regulators asked for the checks, the FBI cooperated. In devising rules for Washington, the Liquor Control Board naturally assumed the FBI would do the same.

But, no. The state’s been asking for cooperation on background checks for almost a year, but the FBI won’t budge, even as the state issues business licenses.

Now it’s up to the Washington delegation to find out why the feds are pro-safety in Colorado and pro-confusion here. And then members need to push for a revision of the federal drug law that’s the root of the pot problem.

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Editorial: Washington state lawmakers scramble to keep public in the dark

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