Feds give yellow light to pot — proceed, but with caution

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WENATCHEE — Washington and Colorado, go ahead and build your marijuana industries, says the Department of Justice. But there’s a red line, or several red lines, that if crossed will bring a heavy federal response. The states will have to work hard to stay on the right side.

That was Thursday’s bombshell.

Just as we finished printing Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder was on the phone with Gov. Jay Inslee, making the position clear. The federal government will not interfere with Washington’s efforts to implement Initiative 502 and build a controlled system for the legal production and sale of small amounts of marijuana.

It will not interfere with Colorado’s similar effort. That is, it will not if strict guidelines are met and state efforts in no way infringe on federal priorities.

The Justice Department released a memorandum from Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, which told all United States attorneys that these are “enforcement priorities that are particularly important to the federal government:”

  • Absolutely no marijuana sold to minors.
  • No profits for criminal gangs and cartels.
  • No marijuana moving from states where it is legal, to states where it is not.
  • State-authorized marijuana sales must not provide cover for traffic in other illegal drugs.
  • No violence, no guns, no drugged driving or public safety threats, no marijuana grown on public lands, no marijuana on federal property.

“The department’s guidance in this memorandum rests on its expectation that states and local governments that have enacted laws authorizing marijuana-related conduct will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that will address the threat those state laws could pose to public safety, public health and other law enforcement interests,” wrote Cole.

Fair enough.

From the looks of the proposed rules for Washington set out by the state Liquor Control Board, that is exactly the system the state is trying to create.

The stated objective: A “tightly controlled and regulated marijuana market” with “strict controls” to prevent illegal sales and sales to minors, that provides “reasonable access to products” to make the black market untenable. Growers and sellers may be licensed by December. Stores may open next year.

The federal position relies on an effusion of prosecutorial discretion. Congress decides that marijuana is illegal. The attorney general cannot change the law.

Congress has determined that marijuana is a dangerous drug and pot provides a significant source of revenue to large-scale criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels.

So, if the highly regulated distribution of this dangerous drug is legal, and provides no revenue for large-scale criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels, we should be OK.

Not all issues have been made clear, reports indicate.

There is a tricky banking matter to consider. Financial institutions with their federal charters will be reluctant to handle drug profits, lest they be punished.

Cities and counties still have to decide how they will handle marijuana retailers under their commercial regulations. Whether cities can effectively exclude pot stores licensed by the state is to be decided.

But the Justice Department has done what it can. It won’t try to stop us, and that’s wise. It will be watching closely, as it should.

If we live up to our responsibilities, we radicals of Washington should get what we voted for in Initiative 502, like it or not.

Tracy Warner is editorial page editor of The Wenatchee World.

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