SEATTLE | Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson met with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday, but came away no further enlightened about how the federal government will respond to last fall’s votes in Washington and Colorado that set up legal markets for marijuana.
The two states voted last fall to legalize recreational marijuana use by adults over 21 and to create state-licensed systems of growers, processors and retail stores that sell heavily taxed pot. The creation of those regulatory schemes poses a possible conflict with federal law, which outlaws marijuana, and the Justice Department hasn’t said whether it will sue to block the state laws.
Inslee, a former Democratic congressman who was sworn in as governor last week, told reporters after the meeting in Washington, D.C., Tuesday that Washington will move forward to establish rules for the market.
The state Liquor Control Board, the agency charged with regulating marijuana under Washington’s measure, drew hundreds of people Tuesday night to an inaugural public forum on the topic of developing those rules.
Board Chairwoman Sharon Foster said the board is thinking about changing its name to include “cannabis.”
Among those who showed up Tuesday night was a former Microsoft manager, Jamen Shively. He told the board he plans to create a high-end company selling only the best “artisan-grown, premium” marijuana. He urged the board to err on the side of caution — of more controls and more testing — “so the feds line up behind us” rather than block the state’s efforts.
One speaker noted that banks typically won’t finance marijuana businesses, and called for a prepaid state-run financing program.
Inslee said the meeting with Holder was collegial and the attorney general asked a lot of questions but gave no indication about when the DOJ might make a decision. Colorado’s governor did not attend.
“I went into this believing that our state should continue to move forward with our rulemaking process,” Inslee said. “Nothing I heard during that discussion dissuaded me of that view.”
During a speech in early December, Holder said the DOJ would have a decision relatively soon.
Inslee described the meeting as the opening of an ongoing conversation. He said he gave Holder details of the role of state employees — noting that although they issue licenses to private entities, they won’t be charged with handling or distributing the weed.
He also said he promised to give Holder further details how the state might prevent “to the extent humanly possible” Washington-grown marijuana from being diverted to other states. That could include digitally tracking legally grown plants and processed marijuana to preclude large-scale diversion.
Ferguson said his message to the DOJ was that the state hopes to avoid a legal fight, but that his office has a team of lawyers preparing just in case. He declined to comment on the strength of Washington’s legal arguments, saying it was premature to do so.
Marijuana remains banned under the Controlled Substances Act, and the Justice Department could sue on the grounds that the state legalization schemes conflict with state law. When state and federal law conflict, federal law wins out or “pre-empts” state law.
Many constitutional law scholars say Washington and Colorado’s efforts fall in that category, though proponents of Washington’s Initiative 502 argue that it could actually complement federal law enforcement efforts by legalizing small amounts for personal use, allowing the feds to focus on large-scale, organized drug crime.
The DOJ also could seize tax revenue collected as proceeds of illicit drug transactions.
Alison Holcomb, the drug policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, was I-502’s campaign manager. She called news of Holder’s meeting with Inslee and Ferguson reassuring.
“It indicates the federal government is doing what we hoped they would do — taking the time to examine what the initiative proposes, and allowing the rulemaking to develop,” she said.
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