Washington officials are moving forward in full force to set up a recreational marijuana distribution system, and have set the ambitious goal of approving both suppliers and dispensaries before the end of 2013. Riding on the momentum of what Gov. Jay Inslee called as a “very satisfying” meeting with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the state has pushed forward the deadlines for implementing regulations, so that producers would be able to start applying for licenses in June if all goes well. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, who is involved in the implementation process, told ThinkProgress:
The liquor control board is working backwards and treating December 1 as a deadline when they could actually have licenses issued. It’s possible that we could actually have stores opened this year.
While some of the state’s law enforcement officials and politicians had initially expressed mixed support for the ballot initiative to legalize small amounts of marijuana and regulate the industry, early reports suggest that they are now wholeheartedly moving to execute the law that voters overwhelmingly supported.
Gov. Jay Inslee, who initially opposed marijuana legalization, told Attorney General Holder in no uncertain terms that “the state of Washington is moving ahead to implement the voters’ will,” according to Holmes, in hopes that they can obtain some federal cooperation on issues like giving dispensaries access to commercial banks. Holmes contrasted this approach with that of former Gov. Chris Gregoire, who had asked the Department of Justice for its advanced blessing when the law passed in November – an approach Holmes said was “designed to elicit a no.”
State officials are also of course hoping to avoid a lawsuit that challenges the law in its entirety by appeasing federal concerns. They are working on a plan, for example, to prevent the state’s legal marijuana supply from bleeding into black markets in other states. But even Holmes concedes that they cannot prevent the types of individual federal prosecutions of dispensaries and suppliers that have undercut the medical marijuana industry in states where it is legal.
“That’s where prosecutorial discretion comes in and that’s where as the chief federal prosecutor Holder’s remarks are very important,” he said.
As for the part of the law that already has gone into effect — the legalization of possession of less than an ounce of marijuana — law enforcement officers have already changed their approach in ways that are even more dramatic than expected.
Even before the law went into effect, prosecutors in several counties dropped hundreds of pending marijuana prosecutions in cases that would become legal under the new law. Although Ian Goodhew with the King County Prosecutor’s Office said his office was among many that had already shifted away from low-level drug prosecutions to save money, his office dropped some 175 prosecutions after the passage of the initiative – a change that has already had an impact.
“It gives us more time to concentrate on other district court cases like driving under the influence, hit and runs, other misdemeanor crimes,” he said.
And both Holmes and Goodhew remarked that police officers have been remarkably embracing of a law many of them opposed. Holmes said:
We have already done a great deal toward harm reduction. We’re not locking up brown people and the arrests have stopped. The prosecutions by and large have stopped, overwhelmingly have stopped. And now, to finish the job, we have to get this legal supply system in place.
And that’s why I think the federal government, the best thing they can do is to allow us to finish the job because until we knock out the black market we haven’t accomplished our goal and that means we have to replace it with a legal system.