In Our View: Follow Federal Law

County commissioners correctly decide to protect employees from prosecution

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Athough many local residents might suspect there’s a legalizing-pot debate under way among Clark County leaders, that’s really not the case. A more accurate description is that of a legal dilemma. County commissioners are caught in a tug of war between a new state law that allows collective medical marijuana gardens, and federal law that prohibits growing, distributing and possessing the substance.Last year, the commissioners made the right call when they imposed a moratorium on implementing the state law, and now they say they will extend that moratorium beyond its July expiration date. That, too, appears to be a correct decision, even more so in light of a recent letter to county commissioners from the U.S. Department of Justice. As Stephanie Rice reported in Friday’s Columbian, commissioners had asked the feds if county employees would be immune from prosecution if they perform tasks related to zoning and permitting of state-sanctioned collective medical marijuana gardens. That seems to be a question of profound importance, especially of county employees who don’t want to face federal criminal charges for doing their jobs.

Joseph T. Rannazzisi, deputy assistant administrator of the federal department’s Office of Diversion Control, left no doubt about the answer. Not only has Congress “determined that marijuana is a schedule I controlled substance,” but also, “growing, distributing, and possessing marijuana in any capacity … is a violation of federal law regardless of state laws permitting such activities.”

Medical marijuana advocates will point out that President Obama’s policies on the matter have wavered, but at the federal level at least, the law is the law. And in the context of feedback from the Justice Department, the letter is the letter.

As we noted in an editorial on July 22 last year, this isn’t a drug debate, it’s a zoning matter, and one that remains very much unresolved. That is why city councils in Vancouver and elsewhere in Clark County have also enacted moratoriums on collective medical marijuana gardens.

If county commissioners feel obliged to wait until state and federal laws are more closely aligned, especially if that means protecting county employees from prosecution, we don’t blame them.

And here’s another thing that’s easily understandable: Axel Swanson, the commissioners’ senior policy adviser, says he’s received calls from other local governments wanting a copy of the letter from Rannazzisi.

The new state law legalizes collective medical marijuana gardens limited to 10 people growing up to 45 plants at one site. Local jurisdictions were left to decide where those gardens would be allowed, and widespread consensus eliminates sites near schools, parks, churches, business districts and neighborhoods. Some suggestions for possible sites have included industrial zones. But none of that matters as long as state law conflicts with federal law. Furthermore, Rannazzisi’s letter contained an ominous second warning, that county employees conducting work related to medical marijuana gardens “may also be subject to money laundering statutes.”

There might be a time in the distant future when legislatures and Congress agree on collective medical marijuana gardens. Until that time, protecting public employees from federal prosecution obviously is the correct stance.