Pressure is on to regulate pot industry, keep it legal

The U.S. Department of Justice gave supporters of responsible adult marijuana use in Washington and Colorado exactly what they hoped for late last week: an opportunity to prove that states can operate a tightly regulated pot industry to the detriment of the criminal black market. It was a historic moment, representing a major shift in DOJ policy on marijuana.

If Washington and Colorado pot regulators can prove themselves worthy of the federal government’s trust, it could break the logjam toward a more reasoned classification of marijuana under federal law.

If the state Liquor Control Board’s final regulatory rules, scheduled to be released tomorrow, can keep pot away from kids, prevent pot-impaired driving, shut out gangs and contain Washington pot within its borders, the federal DOJ will not interfere.

Initiative 502 was carefully written to focus on regulation, so the federal government’s interests align with the measure approved by voters.

But before marijuana advocates celebrate too much, they should read U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s memo closely. The memo is as significant for what it won’t allow, as for what it will.

Holder has no intention of changing the federal law applying to marijuana, at least for now. It will remain a Schedule I controlled substance and the DOJ memo provides no defense in a federal court.

Employers can still fire workers who use marijuana, even off the job, if it’s detected through appropriate testing. And people who live in federal housing or receive federal aid put those arrangements in jeopardy if charged under federal drug laws.

And the attorney general’s memo made it clear that Washington must act quickly to clean up its out-of-control medical marijuana market, or lose the DOJ’s conditional cover from prosecution.

That puts the onus squarely on the shoulders of state legislators to pass clear and acceptable medical marijuana regulations in the upcoming 2014 session. It might tap the state liquor board to take on this task, or spread the work out to another agency.

It’s clear the feds will no longer tolerate the current Wild West environment, and a failure of the Legislature to act could jeopardize the broader marijuana experiment.

State legislators and marijuana advocates must not overlook that the DOJ could revise its policy at any time. If Holder steps down, the new attorney general could implement a less tolerant policy.

And who knows what the presidential administration will do after 2016.

Those facts should fortify the state’s resolve to catch and prosecute with zero tolerance those who attempt to bend or skirt the new marijuana regulations. Failure to do so will invite federal intervention.

The U.S. Department of Justice has, for the moment, granted what a majority of Washington voters wanted. The onus is now on us to make it work for the long term.