Federal Pivot On Marijuana Sows Uncertainty

By Tad Sooter
Kitsap Sun, Bremerton, Wash.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Marijuana shop owner Ayla Savage says that until she sees federal agents raiding shops, she isn’t going to worry about Jeff Sessions announcement that the federal government may no longer take a hands-off approach to enforcement in states that have legalized marijuana.


Christy Stanley has plenty to worry about at her legal marijuana store in Kingston.

Bruising tax rates, steep banking fees and state regulations are just a few of the challenges the Green Tiki Cannabis owner contends with daily.

One development Stanley wasn’t losing sleep over this week was an announcement from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the federal government may no longer take a hands-off approach to enforcement in states that have legalized marijuana. She dismissed the sudden policy pivot as “smoke and mirrors” by the Trump administration.

“I have a lot of concerns,” Stanley said Friday. “Jeff Sessions isn’t one of them.”

Like other marijuana business owners interviewed, Stanley believes it is unlikely the Department of Justice will attempt to shut down pot stores in Washington, where marijuana legalization enjoyed strong support and the industry has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes.

“They’d be cutting off their own nose to spite their face,” she said.

Ayla Savage, who owns the Fillabong marijuana stores in Bremerton and Silverdale, said there has always been risk of a crackdown.

“I mean, it’s federally illegal,” she said. “I’ve known that at any point in time they could do anything they really wanted.”

But until she sees federal agents raiding shops, Savage isn’t going to worry. She’s been reassuring rattled customers, especially medical marijuana patients, who fear they could lose access to cannabis products.

If anything, Savage sees the legalization movement gaining momentum nationwide. California opened legal marijuana sales Monday.

“I think it’s snowballing,” she said.

Hazy outlook
While businesses owners are taking the news in stride, Sessions’ policy decision will sow uncertainty in Washington’s recreational marijuana market, established by voters in 2012.

A memorandum distributed by the attorney general Thursday abruptly rescinded an Obama-era policy advising federal prosecutors not to interfere with state laws allowing people to use recreational and medicinal marijuana.

The memo gives regional prosecutors leeway to enforce the federal prohibition on marijuana as they see fit.

A statement issued Thursday by Annette Hayes, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, shed little light on how federal officials will approach legalized marijuana in the state.

Hayes stated her office will ensure “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.”

Robert McVay, a lawyer with Harris Bricken in Seattle and a contributor to the Canna Law Blog, said Hayes’ comments can be viewed as somewhat positive compared with statements issued by U.S. Attorneys in other states. But the shift in federal attitude toward marijuana could give pause to entrepreneurs and investors looking to enter the industry.

“There will be more cold feet than there were,” McVay said. “It just depends on how much risk you want to take.”

Elected officials in Washington fired back following the Department of Justice announcement. Gov. Jay Inslee said he would “vigorously defend our state’s laws against undue federal infringement.”

Concern for tribes
On the same morning Sessions issued his policy decision, Inslee was inking a marijuana compact with the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe.

The North Kitsap tribe joined a half-dozen other tribal governments, including the Suquamish Tribe, that have entered into agreements with the state guiding regulation of marijuana businesses on their reservations.

The Legislature created the framework for tribal marijuana compacts in 2015, after the U.S. Department of Justice issued guidance effectively clearing the way for marijuana to be legalized and monetized on reservations, provided tribes supported a set of federal law enforcement priorities.

On Thursday, Sessions rescinded that guidance, placing tribal marijuana enterprises in the same uncertain position as state-licensed businesses.

In comments emailed to the Kitsap Sun, Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman defended the regulations developed by the tribes and state.

“State and tribal laws were created and crafted in response to the challenges marijuana presented to our communities,” Forsman said. “We agree with Governor Inslee that the Washington State system addresses these problems in a manner that is well-regulated, keeps out criminals, protects it from falling into the hands of children, cracks down on driving under the influence, and carefully tracks production to prevent cross-border transfer.”

“This is not only about the marijuana industry,” Suquamish Tribal Treasurer Robin Sigo added. “It is about sovereignty, voters’ rights and access to safe marijuana that since becoming legal has resulted in the creation of good paying jobs and much-needed tribal tax revenue that allows us to buy our lands back and invest in community development.”

Port Gamble S’Klallam officials declined to comment on the federal policy shift.

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