Federal marijuana stance doesn’t change anything for Whidbey entrepreneurs, law enforcement

The U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared that federal cannabis laws will be more heavily enforced, but local marijuana industry leaders really aren’t too concerned.

“I try not to panic when things like this happen,” said Lucas Jushinski, owner of Island Herb in Freeland. “Since I’ve opened, I’ve operated in a gray area. That means uncertainty since day one, so I don’t think anything has changed.”

“My initial reaction is they’re going backwards,” Jushinski said. “It goes against what the majority of people want.”

SESSIONS LIFTED a 2013 Obama-era policy on Jan. 4 that kept federal authorities from enforcing federal marijuana laws in states where sale and consumption are legal.

The move sparked opposition, including from lawmakers in Sessions’ own party, including GOP Sen. Cory Gardner, of Colorado and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. The move conflicts with President Donald Trump’s statements on the campaign trail that marijuana legalization should be decided by states.

A number of states’ attorney generals, including Washington’s Bob Ferguson, have said they won’t change their approach to marijuana prosecution.

ISLAND COUNTY Sheriff Mark Brown said his department will follow the state’s cannabis laws.

“It’s a state law that authorizes the sale and consumption of marijuana,” Brown said. “The sheriff’s office isn’t going to go against state law. If there is a conflict, I assume we’ll resolve it through the courts.”

While Sessions lifted the previous administration’s hands-off policy, Brown says nothing has changed in writing regarding enforcement. It appears to be more of a case of the U.S. attorney general making a public statement rather than changing the law.

Brown added, however, the sheriff’s office will continue to pursue the “illegal marketing of marijuana to juveniles.”

JUSHINSKI SAYS he knew he was taking a calculated gamble from the start, knowing that business would likely be good, but that he might have his doors closed at any moment.

Much of that gray area comes down to the 2013 Obama-era policy, the Cole Memorandum.

“The memo wasn’t clear, and it’s open to interpretation,” Jushinski said. “Obama decided to interpret it a certain way and certain states decided to interpret it another way in terms of federal enforcement.”

The uncertainty is also a source of frustration for Matt Schramm, owner of Kaleafa Cannabis Company in Oak Harbor. He said he hopes the recent move by Sessions pushes lawmakers to take up the topic.

“I would hope this move encourages lawmakers to sit down to talk about the existing law,” Schramm said. “I’d like to see Congress look at the details to see we’re doing a great job following the rules, and it’s worked. We don’t need to get stuck in a rut of preconceived notions.”

JUSHINSKI IS interested to see what Sessions’ move pushes banks and credit unions to do. Though recreational marijuana was legalized in certain states, national banks were hesitant to give loans to those in the marijuana industry due to federal law. That doesn’t always apply to local banks and credit unions, however. There are certain financial institutions open to working with “canna-businesses.”

Jushinski conceded it’s been a challenge to conduct business without a bank or credit union.

“People ask me at work all the time if we’re worried about our jobs,” said Langley resident Steven Sutton, who works as a bud tender for Freeland’s Whidbey Island Cannabis Company. “Well, we’re still here, and we’ll keep coming back. This doesn’t change anything.”

Sutton said he views marijuana legalization as a matter of states’ rights and doesn’t see the federal government attempting to flex its muscle on either businesses or consumers.

WHILE THE U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency or Federal Bureau of Investigation could theoretically conduct raids on marijuana businesses, producers and consumers, the sheriff said he doesn’t see that happening.

Under his watch, those smoking and ingesting cannabis legally are safe.

“I don’t see the DEA or FBI coming in and raiding someone with an ounce of marijuana in their homes,” Brown said.

“I think there are a lot of people that might be paranoid about the potential for that happening, but I can’t imagine that happening.”

Kyle Jensen / The Record — Island Herb bud tender Christiana Clare discusses the different growers the stores has for sale.

Kyle Jensen / The Record — Island Herb bud tender Christiana Clare discusses the different growers the stores has for sale.