State’s members of Congress not fired up to smooth pot law with feds

June 14, 2013

Kyung Song, Seattle Times

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 members 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.

How much more dangerous can smoking pot be than drinking, asked Williams, whose grandmother died of alcoholism.

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. One exasperated constituent of Rep. Rick Larsen pleaded on the Everett Democrat’s Facebook page for him to sign on as well, “If for no other reason than nearly 10 times as many people voted for I-502 than did for you in 2012.”

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.”

Kilmer, who opposed I-502, has said the federal government “should respect the will of the voters in Washington state,” but is waiting to see what the Justice Department will do first.

Atkinson criticized McDermott for not speaking out more forcefully in defense of I-502. Three of four voters in McDermott’s 7th District — one of the nation’s most liberal congressional areas — backed the law. It passed with 56 percent of the votes statewide.

McDermott was slow to sign on to the two marijuana bills in this Congress — not until last week, in fact. He did co-sponsor a bill two years ago to declassify the drug as a controlled substance.

Atkinson also dismissed as “disingenuous” Reichert ascribing his opposition to marijuana to his being an ex-cop. Plenty of law-enforcement officers, Atkinson noted, favor legalizing and regulating drugs. Reichert’s mother used pain medication containing cannabis before she died of pancreatic cancer in 2011. Reichert has said there may be more to learn about medical marijuana, but has not endorsed its legalization.

Murray, too, seems to have softened her views on medical marijuana since she voted against it in 1998. More is known now about its benefits, her spokesman said, and Murray is “respectful of the fact that many Washingtonians use marijuana to treat chronic conditions.”

Murray remains opposed to recreational marijuana, though she thinks the state should be given room to responsibly enforce its laws. Along with Smith and McDermott, two Democratic House freshmen, Reps. Suzan DelBene of Medina and Denny Heck of Olympia, have said publicly they voted for I-502.

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.

All that seems to matter little to voters disengaged from pot politics.

Doris Jennings, 87, a West Seattle resident, worries that smoking marijuana might lead to drug abuse. She doesn’t expect lawmakers to get behind a law they don’t believe in — even one that leaves constituents in legal limbo.

“I think they have to use their conscience,” she said.

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