Washington delegation in Congress drags feet on marijuana

State's pot backers say they're putting residents at risk

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WASHINGTON — It's been seven months since Washington voters legalized recreational marijuana in defiance of federal law — and contrary to the personal beliefs of most of the state's representatives in Congress.

Just four of the delegation's 12 members have acknowledged voting for last year's Initiative 502 to permit adults to possess small amounts of pot. Among those opposed were Rep. Dave Reichert of Auburn, a former King County sheriff, who said he was "dead set" against legalization, and Sen. Patty Murray, who previously voted against the successful 1998 state initiative for medical marijuana.

Since then, lawmakers from Colorado, Oregon, California and elsewhere have taken charge to amend federal restrictions on marijuana, which the current drug policy lists in the same class as heroin and LSD.

None of the seven pot-related bills in the House was introduced by mem

bers from Washington. Democratic Reps. Adam Smith of Bellevue and Jim McDermott of Seattle are co-sponsors of two of the bills. No companion bills are pending in the Senate.

With storefront pot vendors set to open their doors in 2014, the legislative inertia from the state's delegation has left pot advocates increasingly aggrieved.

Brendan Williams, an Olympia attorney and former three-term Democratic state representative, said personal convictions don't excuse the lack of action. He said lawmakers, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane, the No. 4 House Republican leader, ought to make reconciling the state-federal legal conflict a priority.

Instead, McMorris Rodgers "seems to be dedicating her time entirely to repealing the Affordable Care Act," said Williams, now the state's deputy insurance commissioner. "That's her prerogative. But she might want to spend at least a little bit of her time" to protect Washington pot users from potential arrest.

Washington and Colorado are the only two states to legalize recreational pot. Another 15 states by July 1 will have decriminalized it, making possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil infraction akin to a speeding ticket.

In addition, 18 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for cancer patients and other medical users. Illinois and New Hampshire may soon follow.

All the states are being allowed to operate in technical violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act. That legal gray zone was outlined in a 2009 memo from Attorney General Eric Holder on how the Justice Department would enforce state-authorized medical marijuana. The memo left prosecution at the discretion of U.S. attorneys to go after large traffickers, while leaving alone users in clear compliance with state laws.

The Justice Department's review of the new laws in Washington and Colorado is continuing. Officially, the federal government's position remains that states can't nullify the Controlled Substances Act.

Alison Holcomb, chief author of I-502, thinks the Justice Department is likely to issue similar guidelines for recreational pot rather than suing to overturn the two states' laws. But turning that policy into law will require congressional amendment -- something Holcomb said "our delegation has been slower" to pursue.

One way to do that, Holcomb said, is with the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act. The bill, which was introduced by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., would make acts allowed under state marijuana laws no longer a federal crime.

Only Smith and McDermott are Washington state co-sponsors on that bill.

McDermott defended the seeming lack of legislative urgency. With Congress dealing with thousands of bills and beset with sequestration, budget deadlock and other pressing issues, marijuana "is way off the radar screen."

Besides, McDermott said, the feds are unlikely to chase small-time pot users.

That kind of rationale infuriates Sam Atkinson.

Atkinson, a marijuana supporter in Gig Harbor, said the true danger lies for pot growers and distributors who face the risk of federal charges despite following state regulations. In the past four years, the Drug Enforcement Agency has raided at least 270 medical-marijuana operations, according to the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.

Atkinson, 48, has been showering members of the delegation with calls and emails demanding action. He even showed up at a town-hall meeting hosted by his congressman, Democrat Derek Kilmer, earlier this month to argue marijuana is misclassified as a dangerous drug.

"I want them to tell the federal government to leave us alone," said Atkinson, a colorist at Lightpress, a film and video firm in Seattle and a Republican precinct officer in Pierce County. Anything less "is a dereliction of duty."

Rep. Denny Heck of Olympia Heck is the main co-sponsor of an upcoming bill that would allow banks to handle transactions for marijuana businesses without running afoul of money-laundering and other federal charges.