In April, Washington State governor Chris Gregoire threatened to veto most of a medical-marijuana bill that would let the state license medical marijuana dispensaries. It was a long-overdue step to rein in a runaway industry. And the bill would protect patients from arrest. But, Gregoire insisted, feds "would prosecute" state employees who oversaw the program. She faced an avalanche of criticism from the ACLU, legal luminaries, and our city hall who insisted there was no real risk of federal prosecution. After all, issuing permits doesn't violate the Controlled Substances Act.
But she vetoed it anyway, leaving a messy tangle of laws that further weakened the medical-marijuana law on the books since 1998.
“I will not subject my state employees to federal prosecution," Gregoire justified the day of the veto. She said a federal memo—which she requested—showed the that the "landscape is changing" and the Obama administration was intent on busting states running a medical marijuana program.
Was Gregoire right? No.
The Department of Justice itself filed the motion to dismiss an anti-medical-marijuana lawsuit brought by the State of Arizona this week. The state's case: It couldn't license medical marijuana dispensaries because that would violate federal law and put state employees at risk—essentially the same case Gregoire made. But even the feds, which are now waiting on US district court judge's decision, don't buy it.
"[T]hey point to no genuine threat that any state employee will face imminent prosecution under federal law," says the DOJ's motion. Even though the Obama administration is clear that pot is still illegal, Arizona's "complaint presents no actual controversy," the feds say, "instead asking this Court for an advisory opinion as to a hypothetical dispute in which Plaintiffs themselves pick no side but rather resort to a purported disagreement among various fictional Defendants."
What does this means for Washington State?
"We're pleased to see the Dept. of Justice explicitly confirm that no state's employees have ever been threatened with federal prosecution simply for implementing medical marijuana regulations," says ACLU of Washington drug policy director Alison Holcomb. "It's too bad Gov. Gregoire's veto left Washington in a mess, but at least the way forward is clearer."