Washington State Court of Appeals bans medical marijuana stores

Never a dull moment.

I completely failed to see this one coming.

A brief history lesson:

Washington State has had a medical marijuana law since 1998. In 2011, the legislature passed a bill allowing the creation of “collective gardens” (aka stores) to grow cannabis for patients registered with the state, and regulating those outlets in various ways: all members of the collectives would have had to register with the state. The governor used her line-item veto to take out major provisions of that bill, including the part that would have created the patient registry.

Until now, the prevailing view has been that the permission to open stores was valid law even though the regulations designed to control them had been zapped, leaving Washington with a booming, and virtually unregulated and untaxed, medical cannabis industry; as everyone says, Seattle has more “medical outlets” than it does Starbucks locations. Some players in that industry were among the strongest opponents of the I-502 initiative that legalized non-medical sales.

Once I-502 had passed, its proponents and administrators started to worry about how a regulated and taxed commercial market could compete with a wide-open, but untaxed and unregulated, quasi-medical system. There were efforts in the legislature this year to rein in the “gardens,” but the industry (speaking, of course, in the name of “the patients”) and a partisan split in the legislature made it impossible to pass anything. Battle was expected to be joined again in January, with the threat of federal intervention lurking in the background.

In the meantime, the town of Kent had passed a local ordinance banning medical outlets. Various industry players sued, citing what was left of the 2011 law. But now the Washington State Court of Appeals (the second-tier court) has ruled that the governor’s partial veto makes all the collective gardens illegal, because a legal collective garden must serve registered patients and there is no patient registry. Therefore, Kent is at liberty to ban what was – according to the court – an illegal activity in the first place. All that’s left of the medical marijuana law is permission for individuals with medical recommendations to grow their own: if charged with a violation of state law for production or possession (but not, apparently, sale), a medical recommendation creates an affirmative defense.

Presumably most of the localities that have collective gardens, including Seattle, will continue to let them operate, especially since the commercial outlets won’t even start to open until sometime around the end of June or early July.

There may be an additional layer of complexity: the Liquor Board planned to allow newly-licensed growers to bring some of their existing cannabis plants into the legal system, since otherwise there would be nothing for the new stores to sell. If newly-licensed growers have to grow new product from seed starting late this spring, the shelves will be bare until fall at the earliest.  Whether the new ruling puts a monkey-wrench in that machinery remains to be seen, as does the effect of the ruling on the bargaining over a new law next year. (Or will the governor call the legislature into special session to give it another try this year?)

Never a dull moment.

 

Federalism and cannabis policy: the terms of a bargain

Policy waivers and Sec. 873 contractual agreements: how to use the states as laboratories for cannabis policy.

The Journal of Drug Policy Analysis has just published a new paper (behind a paywall) in which I offer two alternatives to the options currently in public discussion as to how the federal government can deal with state-level cannabis legalization.

This fall, Washington and Colorado intend to start licensing businesses to produce and sell cannabis under voter-passed initiatives, even though the stuff remains illegal under federal law. The federal government has not yet said what it plans to do about it, and its three obvious options – acquiescing, cracking down, and muddling through – all have fairly serious drawbacks.

A number of what Keith calls Formerly Important Persons have demanded that the feds crush the state-legal Colorado and Washington markets. Since every participant in those markets needs a license, that wouldn’t be hard to do: any federal judge would cheerfully enjoin someone applying for license to commit a federal felony from doing so.

But the state-legal commercial markets represent only one of three systems that can deliver cannabis to customers. The loosely-regulated “medical marijuana” markets would be a far tougher nut for the feds to crack. And the purely illicit system, which handles the vast bulk of transactions today, is way too big for 4000 DEA agents to suppress without help. More than 90% of arrests for growing and dealing marijuana are made by state and local cops. So the feds need state and local authorities in Washington and Colorado to maintain pressure on illegal growing.

Constitutionally, the states have no mandate to even have drug laws, let alone enforce them. In this case, federalism is more than a legal doctrine: it’s a brute fact.

So: Washington and Colorado would like the feds to let their new commercial systems operate. And the feds would like Washington and Colorado to suppress production for out-of-state sale. When each of two parties has something the other wants, that’s the basis for a bargain.

And the Controlled Substances Act (Sec. 873, if you’re keeping score at home) orders the Attorney General to cooperate with state and local officials in enforcing the law, and authorizes him, “notwithstanding any other provision of law,” to enter into “contractual arrangements” with states and localities. The paper proposes that he use that authority to make formal deals with Colorado and Washington in which the Justice Department would agree to keep hands off state-licensed businesses in return for the states’ active help in suppressing interstate trade. That wouldn’t make the state-authorized activity legal, but it could formalize a program of targeted, selective enforcement that would give state licensees an effective safe harbor.

That seems to me a clear second-best to my preferred option, which would be a Congressionally-authorized program of policy waivers. As with the waivers that allowed state-level experiments with alternatives to AFDC, cannabis policy waivers could allow the states, in good Brandeisian fashion, to act as the “laboratories of democracy” in a policy area where there is currently much more passion than knowledge.

Here’s the abstract of the paper:

Passage of marijuana-legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington poses a problem for the federal government: marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but the federal government lacks the capacity to fully enforce that law without state and local cooperation. Complete deference to state legalization would put each state’s cannabis policy at the mercy of its neighbors’. A system of legislatively-authorized policy waivers would allow controlled exploration of alternative systems of control. In the absence of such authorization, the executive branch could use existing authority to craft cooperative agreements with the states intended to confine the effects of each state’s new policies within its own borders.

More detail in this UCLA press release.

Bob Young at the Seattle Times and Jordan Schrader at the News-Tribune have stories.