The federal government will not try to block Washington state’s recreational marijuana legalization law, Gov. Jay Inslee announced this morning.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder delivered his long-awaited decision on a potential legal challenge in a phone call with Inslee and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper just after 9 a.m., according to Inslee’s staff.
Colorado’s legalization law, also approved last November, also will stand.
“We have found a way forward,” Inslee declared in a news conference, thanking Holder and President Obama and signaling that much more work is ahead.
“What I’m hearing from the federal government is that they believe there’s a reason to trust the states of Washington and Colorado,” Inslee said. “We’re going to need to show that this system works.”
Holder’s Justice Department described the decision as part of an “an update to its federal marijuana enforcement policy” to focus on eight specific concerns, including preventing marijuana from spreading beyond states where it is now legal.
The other things the DOJ hopes to prevent are the distribution to minors, violence related to distribution, revenue going to criminal enterprises, the use of marijuana as a cover for other illegal activities, drugged driving, pot growth on public lands and use on federal property.
The DOJ will rely on local law enforcement agencies to enforce their own marijuana laws, but will be ready to “aggressively” step in if states do not adopt an effective and strict regulatory scheme, Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote in a memo to all U.S. Attorneys.
“These are exactly the eight interests that we have shown in the state of Washington that have guided our formulation of this very tightly and well regulated distribution system,” Inslee said.
The DOJ’s decision brings an end to months of uncertainty as Washington state has wondered whether the other Washington would sue to stop the implementation of Initiative 502, which passed with 55.7 percent of the vote.
Inslee sent a letter to Holder in February detailing 21 ways the state will carefully implement the law “with public safety being our paramount responsibility.” He told the attorney general that “the world is watching.”
The next month, Holder said at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that he would be announcing a policy on Washington and Colorado’s laws “relatively soon.”
But weeks and months then dragged on without a decision. Seven congressional Democrats sent a letter in June asking Holder to assure Washington state pot users and sellers they won’t be “penalized by the federal government for activities legal under state law.”
With no decision announced, Holder had been invited to give an update to the Judiciary Committee committee on Sept. 10.
Even with the decision, Inslee and others cautioned that many questions remain — including about the medical marijuana industry and about whether interstate banks will be willing to work with recreational marijuana businesses given that the federal government stills considers pot illegal.
Inslee called that a “significant problem” in need of “creative solutions.”
The governor also sought to allay concerns from potential businesses, saying that a formal agreement between the state and federal government is unlikely but that “we have the fundamental structure of what we need to know” to implement the law.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson added that “there will be important details to work out in the coming weeks and months, but the key point right now is that there’s a pathway forward.”
Other local officials and marijuana activists expressed happiness at Holder’s decision.
“Seattle public safety officials, residents and entrepreneurs can now proceed with confidence that the will of the voters has prevailed in Washington,” Mayor Mike McGinn wrote in a statement.
Interim Police Chief Jim Pugel added that “our department will continue our mission of public safety, harm reduction, and public education encouraging safe and lawful behavior with regards to the guidelines for marijuana established by Washington voters.”
Initiative 502 campaign manager Alison Holcomb said in an interview that Holder’s decision was “incredibly exhilarating.”
“I’m very excited for the Washington voters that they now have clarity that they will in fact get to lead the nation in taking a new approach to marijuana,” she said.