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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.

'Nerve-wracking' as Washington pot stores face federal drug enforcement change

On a busy stretch of Rainier Avenue South in Seattle, next to a taco truck, a dry cleaners and a gas station is The Green Door. A large road-side sign touts it as “Seattle’s favorite cannabis shop.”

Inside on Thursday, it was tense. “Very nerve-wracking,” said manager Mark Larsson. 

He was referring to a big change in how federal drug laws are enforced.

Under the Obama administration, prosecutors were told to focus their enforcement efforts on the most egregious drug offenses, like selling to minors, supporting gangs, or cultivating pot on public land. That policy is called the Cole memo.

On Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded that policy. His office said the changes were meant to reduce violent crime and “return to the rule of law.”

Larsson heard about the change on his drive into work on Thursday. He said the shop has 12 employees, and they’ve talking a lot about what would happen if the feds came after them.

“We have thousands of customers that come in every day, they would have to be directed, probably back to the black market,” Larsson said.

Of course, even though marijuana is legal in Washington state, it’s illegal under federal law.

“For us, we had no fear under the Cole memo because we weren't doing anything else that would you know raise any alarms,” Larsson said. “But now taking that away now it's just the act of trafficking or selling marijuana puts us on the radar.”

Soon after Sessions’ announcement, the federal prosecutor for Western Washington said she will continue to focus enforcement on the biggest threats to safety.

Reaction from state political leaders was also swift. Washington’s governor, attorney general and senators made statements supporting the legal marijuana marketplace here.

And Seattle leaders reassured the public police won’t go after medical marijuana patients or recreational customers.

At a press conference Thursday, interim police chief Carmen Best stood nodding behind Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes as they expressed defiance against the Trump Administration.

Holmes reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a small blue booklet.

“And, once again we have to wonder if they have a copy of this constitution with them,” he said.

That was the U.S. Constitution. Holmes said the new Department of Justice policy violates Washington state sovereignty.

Durkan was the federal prosecutor of Western Washington for five years. She said federal authorities may not have the resources for tough action.

“I don’t think there is the ability to do the enforcement they want,” she said. “And I agree with my attorney, I’m going to let him do the lawyering, but I don’t think they have the legal authority to do it either.”

Some people in the cannabis industry are still worried.

Eric Gaston is with the Evergreen Market, a chain of retail stores. He fears the new policies could affect whether marijuana businesses are able to access bank loans in the future.

“So it puts a real brake on the ability of our industry to grow,” he said. “It puts a break on us as entrepreneurs to expand our businesses when we don’t have access to lending.”

Near Spokane, Crystal Oliver co-founded a pot farm called Washington’s Finest Cannabis.

“We’ve got an old retired dairy farm on the property,” she said. “We’ve got a grain silo, and a little red farmhouse.”

And an 8-foot-tall fence around the crops. The business ships pot all over the state. Oliver said her biggest fear was whether her credit union would keep serving the farm. She was relieved when she found out they would.

“I certainly don’t want to transition to an all cash operation, it would just be a mess,” she said.

Oliver said there’s a lot of money at stake, for the whole state. More than a billion dollars of pot was sold last year in Washington. And that netted the state more than $300 million in excise taxes.

“Well, they’re collecting an awful lot of fees from us and an awful lot of taxes from us,” she said. “The state is making more off the industry than the actual stakeholders that are participating in it.”