Washington’s foray into legalized marijuana has created a confusing labyrinth of laws and policies. There is the recreational marijuana market; there is the medical marijuana market; and now there is a legislative attempt to align those industries.
But wait, there is more to create unnecessary difficulties. There is the fact that individual cities and counties may decline to issue business licenses to marijuana growers and sellers; there is the fact that lawmakers are wrangling over how to disburse tax revenue from an industry that not long ago existed only in the shadows; and there is the fact that banks are reluctant to handle marijuana proceeds.
Those conundrums could largely be smoothed over if the federal government were not residing in The Dark Ages when it comes to marijuana. Federal policy remains based upon the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which considers the drug to be in the same class as, say, heroin or crack cocaine. Never mind that modern science clearly shows that marijuana has medicinal value. Never mind that scientific and anecdotal evidence leaves no doubt that pot is not as dangerous as many other recreational drugs.
The Controlled Substances Act classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, and among the definitions for such a classification is, “There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.” That definition for marijuana has been obliterated over the past 45 years, and updating that view would give Washington some common-sense direction for its marijuana industry. It also would fit in with changing attitudes across the country; Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, D.C., also have legalized recreational use, and more than 20 states have approved medical marijuana.
In Washington, the thin ice involved with skating toward legalization is reflected by jurisdictions being allowed to keep marijuana businesses out of their area. While state Attorney General Bob Ferguson has noted that the issue could have been avoided with a single sentence in the 2012 law approved by voters, he also says that would have led to an argument that federal law trumps state law. If cities and counties could not opt out, it would be a “serious threat to the legalization of marijuana in this state. It doesn’t merely invite the federal-exemption argument, it makes it inevitable,” Ferguson said.
Again, that goes back to the federal government’s outdated view of the drug.
In the meantime, Gov. Jay Inslee last week signed into law a bill bringing the medical marijuana industry in line with the recreational industry, again running into an issue with federal policy. Medical marijuana users will be allowed to purchase more of the drug than recreational users — if they register with the state. This has caused consternation among those who are understandably reluctant to register as violators of federal law.
Perhaps most important is the notion that all of this could change in two years. The Obama Administration has said it would not enforce federal law as long as states have well-regulated industries and have measures in place to keep children away from the drug. That lax enforcement could be altered if the administration that takes office in January 2017 embraces a different view of drug policy — a reality that should call for Congress to act before then.
There is no defensible reason for marijuana to remain classified as a Schedule I substance. And there is no reason for Washington’s reasonable efforts regarding the drug to be hampered by an antiquated federal view.