Next up: Beginning reforms of federal marijuana laws

Five months of hand-wringing and worry over federal interference since Washington voters approved legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana now seems unwarranted. The federal Department of Justice appears willing – for the time being – to let our experiment in relaxed drug policy, and a similar measure in Colorado, go forward without legal or enforcement entanglements.

By restraining the drug hawks in the Drug Enforcement Agency, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has given Congress time to reconsider federal laws that may no longer fit with modern social policies. This also has freed our state’s 12-member congressional delegation to focus on strategic issues, rather than get embroiled in political grandstanding.

Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, for example, who initially opposed Initiative 502 and later supported it, is working to change laws so that federally regulated banks and credit unions can provide services to state sanctioned growers, processors and retailers.

Without legitimate financial services, such as credit cards and business loans, the marijuana industry becomes a cash-only business, which only creates another set of serious problems.Heck sees his role on the exclusive House Financial Services Committee – a plum assignment for a first-year representative – as a more productive contribution to resolving the conflict between state and federal laws than lobbying the DOJ or inflaming public debate.

Heck has an ally in Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, who sits on the companion Senate Finance Committee. Together, they can remove conflicts for bankers and ensure banking access for the marijuana industry.

Flying under the radar of public controversy, the Washington delegation can work with colleagues to reclassify marijuana as something other than a Schedule 1 drug. Its current listing puts pot on par with heroin, and supposedly more dangerous than prescription painkillers, such as OxyContin, which is killing young and old at an alarming rate.

Moving forward slowly also gives state officials time to work out the regulatory system, including forming a realistic expectation of new revenue and shutting down those who get too far in front of public policy. That includes Frankies, the Olympia tavern trying to provide a public smoking venue contrary to the intent of the initiative.

Holder knows it will take time to alter the national course on marijuana policy, not the least of which is a complicated constitutional legal issue. The 10th Amendment gives states the right to prohibit or allow certain criminal activities. But the supremacy clause of Article VI of the Constitution allows federal law to trump state law.

But it’s unclear whether Initiative 502 preempts federal law. The Constitution does not require states to have a law – in this case, prohibiting marijuana – just because the federal government does.

Further, if American drug policy is inevitably headed toward change, the federal government would prefer states control the marijuana industry rather than removing all its prohibiting laws without any regulation whatsoever.

People on both extreme ends of the marijuana issue need to calm down and let the process set in motion by Initiative 502 run its course. We will know in due time whether we have chosen a fatally flawed path or one of insignificant consequence.