Thursday’s bombshell announcement by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions of a crackdown on the sale and possession of marijuana — even in states where it’s legal — has thrown a wave of uncertainty over state officials, cannabis business owners and their customers in the eight states where voters have approved legalized recreational pot.
Characterizing it as a “return to the rule of law,” Sessions rescinded two key Obama-era directives to federal officials that told them to not disrupt state marijuana markets as long as certain conditions are met including preventing distribution to minors, keeping pot revenue from cartels and gangs, and preventing drugged driving.
“I’m not particularly concerned, but it’s got some of our customers scared, hoping they won’t have to go back to the black market,” said Stacy Perciva-Birchard, owner of Green Token located in the 7200 block of 212th Street Southwest in Edmonds. “I see Jeff Sessions’ announcement as a politically-motivated distraction that in the end won’t mean much to the businesses in Washington State. I’ve been in the business since 2011, and I’m confident that our state officials will do whatever is necessary to protect the consumers, patients and others who have come to rely on our businesses, not to mention the income it generates for the State of Washington.”
Tax collections from the industry will generate an estimated $750 million. Most of those dollars are earmarked for the general fund, with the bulk spent on health care, mental health and education.
In announcing the changes, Sessions said, “It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and the previous issuance of guidance undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission.”
However, he stopped short of issuing a call to crack down on legalized pot, instead exhorting U.S. Attorneys to “disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country.”
Here in Washington, officials are already drawing battle lines to fend off any federal efforts to thwart the state’s marijuana business.
In a Thursday news conference, Gov.Jay Inslee addressed Sesssions’ statements head on, pointing out that Washington’s pot businesses comprise “arguably one of the best-regulated and disciplined markets.” Inslee added that “we have been very successful making sure kids are not having success getting marijuana from state stores,” and that “we have probably the best background check” for marijuana store owners.
Inslee also expressed his personal doubts that any heavy-handed federal enforcement would be immediately forthcoming.
“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.
“The current attorney general has had this in his bonnet for decades, and he can get it out of his bonnet,” Inslee said. “The fears of Jeff Sessions have not been realized.”
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, at Inslee’s side during the press conference, has been watching the clouds growing on the federal horizon ever since Washington voters legalized recreational pot in 2012, and his office has been quietly preparing for years. “Our legal arguments are crafted. We are prepared,” he said.
In a statement issued Thursday, United States Attorney for the Western District of Washington Annette L. Hayes, who replaced former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan when she left to become Seattle’s new mayor, appears to reinforce Inslee’s opinion that no federal crackdown is in the cards. In carefully worded statement, Hayes expressed support for her boss by acknowledging Sessions’ confidence in the principles that guide “the discretion of U.S. Attorneys across the nation,” while at the same time distancing her office from any immediate change in enforcement plans in light of Sessions’ announcement. She stressed that her efforts will continue as they have, focusing enforcement efforts “on those who pose the greatest safety risk to the people and communities we serve,” citing as examples “cases involving organized crime, violent and gun threats, and financial crimes related to marijuana.” Hayes, former first assistant to Durkan, was appointed by federal judges to fill Durkan’s job. However, President Trump could nominate her replacement at any time.
Meanwhile, it’s business as usual at Edmonds’ Green Token.
“It’s been a topic of conversation and some customers are concerned, but business has been steady since the announcement,” said store manager Karissa Bragg. “Not being out on the highway, our clientele is mostly regulars from the neighborhood, with many in the 30-60 year-old age group. We’ve gotten to know many personally, and even keep a jar of (non-cannabis-infused) dog treats for customers who come in with their pets.”
Bragg stresses that it’s more than just getting high. “Many customers for whom traditional treatments have either failed or become too expensive are looking for products to ease the symptoms of arthritis, fibromyalgia, and similar ailments. We’ve got several topical preparations that many find effective.”
A cancer-survivor, Bragg speaks from her personal experience about the effectiveness of cannabis products. “They have been a real life-saver for me,” she says.
— Story and photo by Larry Vogel