Drug Enforcement Administration agents swooped in on at least three medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington state Wednesday, serving warrants and confiscating cash and crops.
Washington and Colorado voters chose to legalize recreational marijuana in November 2012, and under state law residents can now legally possess small amounts of the drug. The Obama administration hasn't said how it will react to the opening of state-sanctioned recreational marijuana shops early next year, which will operate in violation of federal law.
Two prominent marijuana reform advocates told U.S. News the dispensary raids may not necessarily spell doom for yet-to-open marijuana shops.
"We don't really have any facts yet underlying these specific raids," said Alison Holcomb, director of the state ACLU's Criminal Justice Project and coordinator of the successful Washington legalization campaign.
"I'm choosing to remain optimistic," Holcomb said, but "it's important for people considering [to apply] for licenses to know if they're going to be targeted."
Medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington operate without formal regulatory oversight and Holcomb doesn't know exactly how many are in operation.
Federal officials have justified past dispensary raids by alleging unauthorized patients, the sale of large quantities of marijuana, money laundering and the involvement of guns or other drugs, Holcomb said.
"The absence of those kind of allegations would cause me the greatest concern," she said.
Unlike the loose regulations on medical marijuana in Washington, recreational marijuana stores in both Washington and Colorado will be strictly monitored and regulated, ideally warding off federal attention.
"At this point, I'm still very optimistic and hopeful" about the Obama administration's approach to legal marijuana shops, said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML. "I'm projecting this onto Obama as the former head of the 'Choom Gang.'"
St. Pierre said he doubts the administration would block the stores from opening, citing behind-the-scenes discussions between the Justice Department and state officials.
"They could have walked into a courtroom that Wednesday or Thursday after the election and sought an injunction and there's a very, very good chance they would have gotten that injunction, but they didn't do that," he said. "They seem to be accommodating the will of the voters."
Negotiators are considering "a lot of pie-in-the-sky, silver bullet b.s." to address issues such as the prevention of interstate marijuana smuggling, St. Pierre said.
The Obama administration seems to be "finding some pragmatic middle ground without giving away the store" on recreational use, he said, but noted widespread "lay confusion" among voters for whom "these raids run counter to their idea of common sense."
St. Pierre and Kris Hermes, a spokesman for the pro-medical marijuana group Americans for Safe Access, noted that the absence of state-level medical marijuana regulation opens the door to federal raids, and pointed out that former Gov. Christine Gregoire, D-Wash., vetoed a 2011 bill to regulate the dispensaries amid warnings that state workers could be prosecuted.
The scope of Wednesday's raid isn't immediately clear. "We heard from a DEA agent that talked to one of my clients that was at the scene that there was 18 targets or 18 places that they were going to hit," local marijuana advocate and attorney Douglas Hiatt told KING-TV.
DEA Special Agent Jodie Underwood told U.S. News in an emailed statement she could not confirm the number of dispensaries affected because the raids were part of "an active ongoing investigation and all documents are under seal."
In a Wednesday evening statement, Underwood announced that "[e]nforcement operations have concluded" and that "search warrants were executed" in three western Washington counties.
Hermes sees the raids as "a continuation of a years long campaign against medical marijuana by the Obama administration. After getting elected," he said, "President Obama took advantage of the goodwill he received for relaxing federal enforcement against medical marijuana by aggressively going after the same people he said would not be a priority."