The federal government isn't ready to respond to Washington's legalization of recreational marijuana.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder gave no firm statement today when he met with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee about the state's legalization of marijuana — and Inslee didn't ask for one. Instead, Inslee said he reiterated the timeline for state actions set out in the law, and said he would follow it.
"I don't believe we should put the brakes on this," Inslee said during a conference call with reporters shortly after the meeting. "We should continue in a rational way to make these rules, and that's the direction we're going to pursue."
Holder mostly listened as Inslee and Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson explained specifics about the implementation of the law, including how pot would be taxed and regulated, who would be allowed to grow it and what role state employees would have in the system, Inslee said. Holder was especially interested in how the state planned to keep Washington-grown marijuana from flowing across state lines, into states where it is still illegal.
The timeline written into the initiative requires the state to start selling licenses this year. "We specifically emphasized the issue of timing," Ferguson said. "We made it very clear that we're moving forward." Other deadlines require state actions in coming months.
Ferguson said his office has a large staff of lawyers analyzing the effects of the initiative — and preparing a possible defense in case the federal government should sue to stop implementation of the law. Ideally, the state and the federal government will find a way to coexist in regards to the law. But, Ferguson said, "if it comes to it, the attorney general's office in Washington state will be prepared if we need to go to a legal fight."
Inslee said he felt encouraged by the discussion. He portrayed Holder's interest in the specifics of Washington's law as a positive sign that the attorney general is interested in making a decision "that looks at the specific facts of our particular case, not basing it on any sort of ideological or broad brush."
"I went into this with the belief that our state should continue to move forward with the rule making process," Inslee said. "Nothing I heard during that discussion dissuaded me of that view."
Salvador Mungia, a Washington lawyer and one of the initiative's original sponsors, said, "Nothing's changed." Federal law is complex, Mungia said, and a large part of the question that would have to be resolved as part of a challenge would be whether federal law could pre-empt state law in this particular area.
If the feds don't sue, Mungia said, they could still try to diminish the law's effectiveness by having federal law enforcement officers bust growers and sellers. Even if that happened, Mungia said, it would be "highly unlikely" that federal agents would pursue individual users of the drug.
The best-case scenario, Mungia said, would be passage of a federal law allowing states to regulate marijuana themselves, several of which have already appeared in Congress. Still, so far Congress has shown no sign it's likely to approve any of these measures.