WA: Federal Marijuana Policy Draws Mixed Local Reaction

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Photo Credit: Brian Myrick

Local marijuana retailers and growers say it’s business as usual following a change in the federal government’s approach to enforcement last week.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last week he would let federal prosecutors in states where marijuana is legal decide how aggressively to enforce the longstanding federal law against it, a change from Obama-era policy which was more lenient. The decision drew objections from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who said they will defend the will of the state’s voters who approved marijuana legalization.

Brittany Choyce, owner of the Green Shelf, one of three marijuana retailers in Ellensburg, said she has been prepared for things to change at any moment since opening her store on Main Street.

“I’m, as always — since starting my business, crossing my fingers and doing everything perfectly right so that I maintain business while the federal government sorts things out,” Choyce said. “I always have expectations that things will change locally and beyond because it is a moving target and it has been since we started.”

Choyce said right now she doesn’t know that there is cause for immediate concern over the federal decision, though she is disappointed that the decision was made. She said she’s seen growers and retailers pushed out of the county.

“I hate to see any marijuana businesses moved out of this county because the tax money that it brings to our county is invaluable,” Choyce said.

When the market first opened she heard plenty of horror stories about the cost of marijuana. Choyce said since the market has finally settled, it has become more affordable.

Ryan Bean, owner of the Fire House retail store on Canyon Road, doesn’t believe that the federal policy will change anything.

“Whatever kind of acceleration that they’re gonna try to push or pressure on us, I think it’s just going to make more of a case for us,” Bean said, referring to marijuana advocates.

“I think all he (Jeff Sessions) did was accelerate the process by spotlighting the issue,” Bean said.

While he doesn’t think any action will be pursued towards any advocates of marijuana, he believes that if it did, it would just backfire. Bean said that as far as he can tell, the change in federal policy has not affected his sales and customers do not seem to be concerned or less willing to continue buying marijuana. He said it’s possible they are selling even more.

LOCAL OFFICIALS

Representatives with the Kittitas County Prosecutors Office and Sheriff’s Office expressed frustration with the differences in state and federal law.

Kittitas County Prosecutor Greg Zempel said he disagrees with the governor and state attorney general when they say marijuana is well regulated in the state.

Zempel said he’s concerned by the number of vehicular assaults and homicides where marijuana is a contributing factor, and the fact crime labs aren’t receiving enough funding from the state to process evidence from DUIs that may be related to marijuana. He said there’s been increased marijuana use by youth, and there have been two cases in Kittitas County where people were shipping marijuana outside the state.

“In terms of federal and state law being different, it’s a horrible place to be in as a criminal justice system,” he said. “I think the governor, judges and legislators all take an oath of office swear to uphold the Constitution and laws of federal and state government, so when you have two distinct positions taken …. you are setting yourself up for failure and confusion and complexity for our citizens.”

He said the county has seen a little money for a youth mentoring program, which is good, but overall the state hasn’t done enough to support local communities.

“There’s a lot of frustration,” he said. “We’re seeing very few dollars from marijuana money making it back to the community to deal with problems.”

He said what happens with the new federal direction is anyone’s guess, given the fact marijuana hasn’t been a priority for the federal government. He doesn’t expect a huge change, especially given issues with opioids and other drugs.

Kittitas County Undersheriff Clay Myers echoed those comments, saying it’s an unfortunate situation to have state and federal law at odds.

“When you have one legislative authority giving permission to violate law of another legislative authority, it’s unfair to the public and law enforcement,” he said. “We’re in that situation where you are expected to recognize a law and a violation of such and expected to ignore it.”

He said law enforcement has encountered situations where they know there is undocumented marijuana in facilities and the state isn’t taking appropriate action.

“I don’t think the state has adequately addressed federal government or local law enforcement’s concerns,” he said.

Upper County

Paul Brice, who owns the Happy Trees store in Cle Elum, said it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to put a stop to a marketplace that’s already been implemented.

“It’s laughable,” Brice said. “It’s already working, and working so well … the fact that it’s helping out PTSD in people from all walks.”

Brice said the federal government should sit back and let the states that want to be involved, be involved, and let the others sit back and watch what happens. If everything is going fine, which Brice says it is, those anti-marijuana states should take notice.

“For people that really need it for medical reasons, they now have access to it, and that’s truthfully why we were here at the very beginning,” Brice said. “Now they’re finding some people like to use it recreationally, to the point where we can’t even say some people — an overwhelmingly abundance of people obviously for the amount of money that’s coming in.”

Brice said when states like Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana, it opened up a Pandora’s box, which he said is going to be hard to close.

“They’re crazy even trying to talk this way,” Brice said. “Now everyone knows how simple and easy it is to grow marijuana or have access to marijuana, and now they want to close Pandora’s box. Give me a break. Good luck.”

Brice also doubts the federal government is going to step in and send him and his fellow business owners to prison.

“All the over 21 and older adults that are in this business, (are they going to) start locking them up and give them all federal offenses and felonies on their records?” Brice said. “You gotta be kidding me.”

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