OLYMPIA — A wave of uncertainty crashed upon the state’s legalized marijuana industry Thursday when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded policies that had made it possible to grow, sell and buy pot without fear of arrest by federal agents.
Sessions announced erasure of policies, enacted under President Barack Obama, that had steered the Department of Justice away from heavy-handed enforcement of federal laws barring production and sale of marijuana. Those policies cleared an obstacle for Washington, where voters legalized recreational marijuana use in 2012.
The move infuriated state political leaders, who vowed to fend off any effort by the federal agency to crack down on those engaged in the business.
“Given our ability to defeat terrible ideas of the Trump administration, we should have confidence we can do it again,” Gov. Jay Inslee told reporters gathered for a preview of the upcoming legislative season hosted by The Associated Press.
But Inslee didn’t express concern federal agents will be immediately raiding state-licensed pot shops and marijuana-growing operations.
“This is just a creation of uncertainty. You should not push the panic button in your individual lives or your businesses,” he said. “This may not mean any change in federal policy in the state of Washington. We hope it does not.”
GreenRush marijuana grower Mark Flanders pays close attention to news that affects his business north of Snohomish.
He’s not concerned Thursday’s announcement will dent his plans to increase production. He grows about 500 pounds of marijuana a year and is hoping to grow 600 this year.
“I don’t think the justice department has enough money or manpower to go after everybody in the industry,” Flanders said. “The Pandora’s box is opened. They’re not going to stop it.”
He thinks Sessions is out of touch, noting he was appointed a federal prosecutor in the 1980s during the height of the Reagan-era War on Drugs.
Laura Dana, owner of The Vault Cannabis, is of a similar mindset.
“I just don’t see them coming into California, Washington, Colorado and Alaska and other states that have legalized marijuana and put the effort in to shut us down,” she said. “Why would they? With the revenue it’s producing, what good would it do for anybody?”
Dana owns two stores, one in Lake Stevens and another in Spokane, with plans for a third in Arlington.
She said she is worried this change in federal policy might scare away investment in the industry or, worse, force the banks that are working with the industry to steer clear.
Dana said the industry in Washington is on the cusp of being allowed to use debit and credit cards. Taking the cash out of the business would just make the industry safer for everyone.
“These are things that are helping secure the industry,” Dana said. “Instead it’s kind of taking it backwards.”
She’s not sure why the Trump administration is making this a priority.
“This is a kind of an anti-Republican policy,” Dana said. “What ever happened to states’ rights first?”
Washington voters in 2012 legalized marijuana use for adults 21 years and older. And in 2016 the state merged its recreational and medical marijuana industries under one regulatory scheme.
Tax collections from the industry will generate an estimated $750 million in revenue for the current two-year state budget. Most of those dollars are put in the general fund, with the bulk spent on health care, mental health and education.
“Rightly or wrongly we need that money to take care of the people in our state,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, who called Sessions’ action misguided. “We have almost eradicated the black market in Washington state. Why would we go away from that?”
Sessions rescinded directives issued in 2009 and 2013 — known as the Ogden and Cole memos, respectively — that served as federal guidance not to intervene or interfere where medical or recreational use of cannabis was legal.
It is the Cole Memo that has been the guiding doctrine for regulations imposed in this state.
It directs states to, among other things, trace the cannabis product from seed to sale to prevent its diversion out of state or into the hands of drug dealers and cartels for illegal distribution. The memo also requires strong enforcement to prevent minors from getting access to marijuana.
While Sessions’ action gets rid of the memos, he did not order federal authorities to begin actively investigating the growing, producing, selling or buying of marijuana. Rather, he said he would leave it up to the discretion of U.S. attorneys “to use previously established prosecutorial principles that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country.”
In a statement issued Thursday, Annette Hayes, the U.S. attorney for Western Washington, appeared to signal the office will not change its approach.
“We have investigated and prosecuted over many years cases involving organized crime, violent and gun threats, and financial crimes related to marijuana,” she said.
“We will continue to do so to ensure — consistent with the most recent guidance from the department — that our enforcement efforts with our federal, state, local and tribal partners focus on those who pose the greatest safety risk to the people and communities we serve,” she said.