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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Congressional spending compromise includes protection for Washington’s marijuana industry

Congress is set to give Washington and other states that have legalized marijuana a five-month reprieve from a feared federal crackdown with the passage of a spending bill sometime this week.

Local experts say the stopgap measure, an amendment that has been part of federal funding legislation since 2014, gives some certainty to an industry that has spent much of the early part of the year speculating about the actions of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime marijuana opponent. More permanent answers about how the Trump administration will deal with the nascent industry, which netted $74.3 million in Spokane County in 2016, will likely come this summer, after Congress extends a ban on funding for a federal pot crackdown through the end of September, they said.

“You’ve seen a development of sort of a cottage industry, of people trying to read the tea leaves of where the feds intend to go,” said Chris Marr, a former state senator and former Washington Liquor and Cannabis board member who now lobbies on behalf of some in the industry in Olympia.

The roughly $1 trillion spending package, which has earned Democratic support, includes language first approved by Congress in December 2014 that prevents any money budgeted to the Justice Department to be used “to prevent any (state) from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

Kevin Oliver, a Spokane County marijuana producer and executive director of the Washington chapter for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the organization will push a growing number of federal lawmakers in states that have legalized marijuana to pass a law making the funding ban permanent when the funding bill expires in September.

As it is currently written, every time Congress debates a new spending deadline the measure must be reintroduced, raising the possibility of a major shift in enforcement if the clause isn’t included in future resolutions.

“The idea is, as long as we’re renewing this, maybe we should make it a law,” Oliver said. He plans to travel to the nation’s capital at the end of the summer to lobby for such a law.

Marr said if Congress passes the measure as expected, it will send a signal, albeit a small one, that federal lawmakers are willing to allow states’ experiments in developing legal markets to continue.

“It does send a signal to the Trump administration that Congress is supportive of standing down as it relates to federal enforcement,” Marr said.

Sessions last month ordered a review of the department’s enforcement of several laws, including the Controlled Substances Act, which continues to classify marijuana as illegal without any medicinal value, along with heroin, LSD and peyote. Marr said the outcome of that review, expected in July, would likely be a more permanent indicator of the federal government’s enforcement plan than congressional action.

Sam Calvert, owner of the Spokane retail shop Green Star Cannabis, said Monday’s news that the measure would be included in another spending bill just meant the marijuana industry could continue “business as usual.”

“I see everybody in the industry, all the time, they’re just high-strung about situations that are beyond our control – perhaps not our influence – but beyond our control,” he said. “Ultimately these decisions will be made by legislators.”