But law enforcement officers said the targeted dispensaries were suspected fronts for commercial drug dealing — not those who were complying with the state’s marijuana law in good faith. During a related series of raids in 2011, Pierce County spokesman Ed Troyer told the Seattle Times: “We don’t want to disrupt patients’ legitimate right to medical marijuana but we need it to be conducted under the rules.” He said his county worked with federal officials to selectively target those who had been warned they were not complying with state law.
Federal crackdowns on medical marijuana dispensaries in states where they are legal are nothing new. Since the unexpected 2011 raids on 26 Montana dispensaries that were seemingly compliant with state law, it became clear that the Obama administration intends to enforce the federal marijuana ban against distributors, although not against individual users.
But after Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana in November, questions re-emerged about how federal officials would respond to this newly expanded market. Attorney General Eric Holder has remained silent, saying only that he would announce a policy “relatively soon,” and President Obama said his administration has “bigger fish to fry” than targeting marijuana “users” but was not asked about dispensaries or suppliers.
In April and May, the DEA launched a new round of crackdowns, sending shutdown letters to dispensaries in Seattle and several California cities. These letters appeared to target at least some dispensaries complying with Washington and California law. But early indications suggest that this latest round of raids is intended to target only those violating Washington law.
If federal prosecutors were to limit their crackdowns to violators of state law, their efforts could bolster the state’s experiment to create a legal, regulated market for marijuana, rather than undercut it. Greta Carter, who heads a Seattle medical marijuana trade association working to implement industry standards, told ThinkProgress, “We fully anticipate that there will be and needs to be a ‘cleaning of the house’ and we welcome that.”
Polls have indicated a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana as an alternative to the failed War on Drugs, and an even greater majority believes the decision should be left up to the states.
This post has been updated to clarify that there were only four confirmed raids on Washington dispensaries this week. The original post incorrectly stated there were at least fourteen raids.
Joseph Diebold is an intern with ThinkProgress.