Marijuana dispensaries take wait-and-see approach after crackdown talk

Retailers have been thriving with little concern for federal involvement until now.

By Troy Brynelson

The Columbian

VANCOUVER — Local marijuana shops say they will take a wait-and-see approach after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer recently made allusions to a federal crackdown on legal pot.

Ramsey Hamide, whose co-owned dispensary Main Street Marijuana is Washington’s top seller of marijuana, said cannabis-based businesses are worried they could face fines or jail time, but for many it’s too soon to say.

“We’re not going to do anything reactionary,” he said, later adding that he and his business partners would take it “one day at a time.”

Spicer said Thursday the administration may consider cracking down on the recreational marijuana industry now legal in eight states and Washington, D.C.

“I do believe that you’ll see greater enforcement,” Spicer said during a press briefing. He also made the distinction between recreational and medical marijuana, which he said were “very, very different” subjects.

Spicer then referred follow-up questions to the Department of Justice, now headed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has been critical of marijuana legalization.

The comments led Hamide and others to talk “contingency plans,” he said.

“If we’re to shut down, how do we unwind (the business)? How do we get rid of inventory? How does the framework unwind in a way that isn’t going to raise eyebrows with the federal government?” Hamide said.

Jim Mullen, owner of the trio of marijuana retailers called The Herbery, said he isn’t concerned and said people may be misinterpreting Spicer’s comments.

“I don’t think enforcement meant shutting (the industry) down, I think people are reading into it,” Mullen said. “And that’s common. It’s a new industry, it’s a big industry and it’s a popular industry. From what I’ve heard and read, people are making speculations that are completely inaccurate and out of context.”

Retailers have been thriving with little concern for federal involvement since the release of the so-called Cole Memorandum, in which Justice Department officials said federal prosecutors would not impede state laws as long as marijuana did not cross state lines.

Robert McVay of the law firm Harris Bricken said the Trump administration could choose to revoke or change the memorandum, or issue its own. But that move would put more work on agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency.

“Federal law enforcement isn’t built to enforce these intrastate marijuana laws,” he said.

If they do proceed, the federal government could start by sending letters to marijuana businesses ordering them to halt production or sales, he said. They could be threatened with or face raids, arrests and other ramifications.

Hamide said if it comes to that, he will likely consider shuttering.

“Once that happens, we won’t be the last holdout on the block or anything, trying to take a stand against the Trump administration,” he said. “That’s a losing battle.”

Plans might also get tangled if the administration plans to knuckle down on recreational marijuana but not medical marijuana, McVay said. In Washington, for example, the programs are merged.

There are many marijuana businesses in Vancouver and Battle Ground, including 12 retailers and more than 20 producer-processors who grow, sell and make cannabis products. The industry has generated $34.1 million in excise taxes since debuting in 2014.

Washington officials look to oppose any moves made against the state’s marijuana laws. In a letter to Sessions dated Feb. 15, Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson said legalization had successfully turned a black market enterprise into tax dollars.

“This frees up significant law enforcement resources to protect our communities in other, more pressing ways,” the letter said. “We urge the DOJ to continue to allow states the option to pursue these sensible policies.”

Washington and Colorado were the first states to legalize marijuana, but have since been joined by Oregon, Alaska, California, Nevada, Maine, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.