State attorney general in center of marijuana fight

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When state Attorney General Bob Ferguson declared earlier this year that individual cities and counties can ban the growing, processing and selling of recreational marijuana it was taken as gospel by many local officials.

As a result, several cities and counties have put the kibosh on pot operations through moratoriums, including some cities in Walla Walla and Columbia counties.

But — and this was made clear by Ferguson (although many opted to stop listening) — the attorney general’s opinion was just that, an opinion. The final interpretation of the voter-approved law would come from a court ruling.

And that day now appears to be coming.

Wenatchee adopted a policy mandating business-license applicants comply with federal law. Since U.S. government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic, the policy effectively bans retail pot sales and other operations until federal law is changed. The city of Fife has also banned pot sales.

However, businesses seeking licenses in those cities are now suing on the grounds local prohibition of marijuana conflicts with state law.

The Attorney General’s Office is smack in the middle of the dispute as it plans to defend, as required, the state law.

Ferguson’s office is planning to argue federal law does not pre-empt the state’s marijuana regulatory system, but it was noted in a news release that the attorney general isn’t intervening on behalf of any parties involved in litigation.

Ferguson said the goal is “not to focus on policy implementation,” but rather to ensure accurate interpretation of the law to protect the regulatory system that Initiative 502 created.

Staying neutral might be tricky as Wenatchee says in its lawsuit that the city relied on the attorney general’s opinion in nixing pot sales.

In the end, we believe Ferguson’s original opinion will be overruled.

The state Liquor Control Board, charged with overseeing implementation of the law, began its work with the assumption participation was not optional. Brian E. Smith, director of communications for the WSLCB, said last year there is nothing in I-502 that allows a community or jurisdiction to opt out.

I-502 established a certain number of store licenses in all 39 counties, including four in Walla Walla, with the idea the law would be effective only if all Washingtonians had reasonable access to recreational pot. I-502 calls for the WSLCB to minimize the illicit pot market.

“To do so,” Smith said, “consumers will need reasonable access to product.”

While we did not favor I-502 before the election, nor do we see a lot of positives post election, the people have spoken. I-502 was approved with nearly 56 percent of the vote.

The law must be followed as it was intended, which likely means at some point pot shops will be in all 39 counties.

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