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Washington became one of the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2012. But there are a lot of challenges ahead: the state must set up a licensing system for marijuana growers and sellers, the federal government may mount a challenge, the need to set a new limit on amount of marijuana in the bloodstream for safe driving. And medical marijuana is still in the picture.Over the next several months we will be exploring the issue and tracking the impact of I-502.

DEA Letters "Tap The Brakes" On Legal Marijuana

Amy Radil

Two weeks ago the federal Drug Enforcement Administration sent cease and desist letters to 11 medical marijuana dispensaries in Seattle. It was the first notable enforcement action in Washington since recreational marijuana was legalized last year. Federal officials say it won’t be the last.

Doug Gerdes runs a co-op for medical marijuana patients in a small, green house off of Leary Way in Seattle. His collective garden is the only type of marijuana business currently allowed under state law. “We’ve been here eight months with no hassles until this letter came from the DEA saying we were in a prohibited zone,” he said. 

The federal Controlled Substances Act prohibits marijuana in any form, and it allows stiffer penalties if a provider is within 1,000 feet of a school, childcare center or park. Gerdes said he’s not sure which prohibited facility he’s too close to, but he plans to relocate. The DEA sent 11 of those letters in Seattle at the end of April, informing landlords and dispensaries that they must close or face possible forfeiture and criminal charges. 

Gerdes said he hasn’t had any complaints from neighbors; in fact several are his patrons. He’s mystified since he attended public hearings to learn about Seattle’s zoning policies for marijuana providers, and never heard mention of the 1,000-foot rule.

“I just think that when one government says it’s okay, then another government shouldn’t come in and spank us like little kids and say, ‘no you can’t do it,’” he said.

DEA Says More Letters To Come

DEA spokeswoman Jodie Underwood said that this federal pushback isn't new — the letters are identical to others sent last year. She said the agency won’t disclose the recipients for strategic reasons, but that citizen complaints play a role. The DEA has received daily phone calls reporting new dispensary locations according to Underwood. Additional letters are definitely in the works, but she clarified that the timing of the letters has no relationship to Washington’s attempts to establish rules for recreational marijuana.

A Warning To Investors?

John Davis owns dispensaries and heads the Coalition for Cannabis Standards and Ethics. He said the DEA’s enforcement of the 1,000-foot rule is erratic; giving the example that the agency targeted two dispensaries near a Seattle elementary school, while ignoring a larger one that’s even closer. 

“Does that tell me that they care about schools with these actions? No, in my analysis in this and previous rounds, schools are the last things from their mind on this," Davis said. "These actions are taken to tap the brakes.”

Ever since Initiative 502 legalized recreational marijuana last fall, investors have been hoping to cash in, said Davis. But letters like this make them more cautious. He said the letters are having what he believes is their intended effect: “Keeping the big money sitting there looking at each other and not doing anything."

Bumpy Transition To Recreational Marijuana

Seattle City Council President Sally Clark has encountered the conflicting city, state and federal approaches to marijuana as she’s worked on new zoning rules for marijuana growers, processors and sellers. According to Clark, “The feds are in a tough transition time too, they’re trying to figure out how to send clear signals, and to also be consistent."

She doesn’t see these federal letters as overly significant, since they’re the same as previous ones. She said the letters sent last year were directed at some “bad apples” who were abusing state law; but she’s not sure about the specifics of this latest round. “This transition time is going to be bumpy, there’s no question about it."

Advocates for legalization say they’re trying to make it through this bumpy time, in hopes that some of these issues will be resolved once state-licensed retail stores open for marijuana, as early as the end of this year. That will be just the beginning of the collision between state and federal law, said Davis. “In December, the will of the people is going to touch the Controlled Substances Act, and weird stuff is going to happen,” he predicted.

He doesn’t know exactly what. “This has never happened before. I can feel my world just getting more and more surreal with each passing day.”

Like a marijuana rally featuring Seattle’s police chief, city attorney, and a top state regulator? That was the Cannabis Freedom March in downtown Seattle last weekend.

City Attorney Pete Holmes is a prominent legalization advocate and supported Initiative 502. As for the recent DEA letters, Holmes said in a written statement that it’s “progress” to see the federal government engaged in selective enforcement rather than blanket shutdowns. He said he hopes I-502 can go forward without federal intervention.

Year started with KUOW: 2005