Feds Raid WA Medical Pot Dispensaries: Could More Regulation Save the Coming Legal Market?

A strong, state-based regulatory system appears key to avoiding the crackdown.

On Wednesday, federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration raided several marijuana dispensaries in Washington's Puget Sound region. It's tempting to interpret the crackdown as a threat to state-sanctioned legalization for adults older than 21. Nonetheless, activists and experts on the ground tell AlterNet that while it's too early to make a judgement, it appears likely that the dispensaries targeted may have been violating state, not just federal, law. Moreover, strict regulations embedded in Washington's more sweeping legalization model (and absent from its medical policy) may protect the state from federal intervention once the pot shops open up. 

The Daily Chronic reported that as many as 18 dispensaries were raided, but AlterNet has confirmed with US attorneys that only four (Seattle Cross, Tacoma Cross,  Bayside Collective, and Key Peninsula Cross) were served warrants. The raid has also been described as the result of a reported two-year investigation, and the four dispensaries busted were also targeted by a 2011 raid. A spokesperson for the US attorneys' office for Western Washington told AlterNet these four distributors had not been officially prosecuted, but "on notice" ever since. 

In 2011, the federal search warrant affidavit including these four dispensaries alleged that the businesses were involved in large-scale distribution to non-medical marijuana patients. 

"[T]he allegations brought by the federal government suggest individuals are involved in activities that fall out of both the letter and the spirit of our state law," said Alison Holcomb, the architect of the legalization bill I-502 and director of the Criminal Justice Project at ACLU of Washington. Holcomb added, "So they were allegedly breaking state law, not only federal law."

Dominic Holden, a local reporter on the marijuana policy beat, also appeared to suspect foul play. Holden wrote in Seattle's The Stranger that, because, "There are plenty of cases of people running 'medical cannabis co-ops' who get busted because they are running for-profit operations that have nothing to do with medical pot," he wants to see court documents before making "an armchair verdict on today's dispensary raids."

Regardless, Washington's coming marijuana market may not face the same federal scrutiny as its medical marijuana model. While recreational legalization appears to more blatantly contradict federal prohibition, strong, central regulation appears to protect against federal interference. Because Washington's recreational model includes tight rules and oversight, feds may be more reluctant to raid those businesses than less regulated dispensaries.

As Marijuana Policy Project, the Drug Policy Alliance, and Allison Holcomb pointed out to AlterNet, medical marijuana states with looser regulatory schemes, like California and Montana, have been more prone to federal raids than states like Colorado and New Mexico, where regulations are tighter. Washington's legalization amendment, however, sets up a strict (some have even criticized it for being too strict) system of oversight. 

"Washington is in an interesting situation," said DPA's marijuana policy expert, Amanda Reiman, "They have legalized adult use of marijuana, which the feds have remained fairly silent on, and they also have medical marijuana."

"But, like California, [Washington medical marijuana law] stops short at state involvement in licensing cultivation and dispensing."

Reiman said that while she believes the Obama administration, "or whoever is calling for these raids," may make decisions influenced by how involved, or not, the state is involved in marijuana regulation. 

"Part of the reason for this is because when localities have complaints about medical marijuana businesses and the state is not involved, the complaints are usually going to the U.S. attorneys in those states, which triggers federal involvement," said Reiman.

"In California, there are no statewide regulations or even local regulations regarding standards for production, standards for transportation of product, quality control, and other important guidelines," said Holcomb. She thinks a state agency tasked with controlling marijuana is the most effective method. 

"The problem is that that is an environment where people who are willing to break rules are at a competitive advantage," said Holcomb. "It also creates uncertainty within the communities." 

Like Reiman, Holcomb said, "What we frequently see is that law enforcement responds to community complaints," particularly businesses pushing the envelope and "creating a sense of lawlessness," which incites nervousness in neighbors who "invite systemic raids to tamp down on the industry."

Holcomb said Washington's legalization initiative was very influenced by this observation. "We knew it would be important to not only have very clear regulations, but uniform throughout the state," That way, she says, marijuana distributors can easily "understand standards for business to be conducted."

A spokesperson for the Western Washington US Attorney's Office told AlterNet their policy in regards to recreational legalization will be determined by the Department of Justice, while their medical marijuana priorities -- which the office claims to have established itself -- is to target businesses that appear to be acting as large-scale, illegal drug traffickers. 

It is too early to say for sure whether the dispensaries busted were disregarding state law, but marijuana legalization advocates do not appear to be sweating its implications for more sweeping legalization just yet. 

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