U.S. attorney general offers little guidance on legal pot

Inslee says state will move forward; hundreds at forum

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SEATTLE -- Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson met with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday, but came away no further enlightened about how the federal government will respond to last fall's votes in Washington and Colorado that set up legal markets for marijuana.

The two states voted last fall to legalize recreational marijuana use by adults over 21 and to create state-licensed systems of growers, processors and retail stores that sell heavily taxed pot. The creation of those regulatory schemes poses a possible conflict with federal law, which outlaws marijuana, and the Justice Department hasn't said whether it will sue to block the state laws.

Inslee, a former Democratic congressman who was sworn in as governor last week, told reporters after the meeting in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday that Washington will move forward to establish rules for the market.

The state Liquor Control Board, the agency charged with regulating marijuana under Washington's measure, drew hundreds of people Tuesday night to an inaugural public forum on the topic of developing those rules.

Board Chairwoman Sharon Foster said the board is thinking about changing its name to include "cannabis."

Among those who showed up Tuesday night was a former Microsoft manager, Jamen Shively. He told the board he plans to create a high-end company selling only the best "artisan-grown, premium" marijuana. He urged the board to err on the side of caution -- of more controls and more testing -- "so the feds line up behind us" rather than block the state's efforts.

One speaker noted that banks typically won't finance marijuana businesses, and called for a prepaid state-run financing program.

Inslee said the meeting with Holder was collegial and the attorney general asked a lot of questions but gave no indication about when the DOJ might make a decision. Colorado's governor did not attend.

"I went into this believing that our state should continue to move forward with our rulemaking process," Inslee said. "Nothing I heard during that discussion dissuaded me of that view."

During a speech in early December, Holder said the DOJ would have a decision relatively soon.

Inslee described the meeting as the opening of an ongoing conversation. He said he gave Holder details of the role of state employees -- noting that although they issue licenses to private entities, they won't be charged with handling or distributing the weed.

He also said he promised to give Holder further details how the state might prevent "to the extent humanly possible" Washington-grown marijuana from being diverted to other states. That could include digitally tracking legally grown plants and processed marijuana to preclude large-scale diversion.

Ferguson said his message to the DOJ was that the state hopes to avoid a legal fight, but that his office has a team of lawyers preparing just in case. He declined to comment on the strength of Washington's legal arguments, saying it was premature to do so.