Washington state marijuana activist Douglas Hiatt, a ponytailed and contrarian defense attorney, remains unimpressed by the Obama administration's approach to weed.
The Justice Department hasn't said if it will block the opening of recreational marijuana shops in Colorado and Washington early next year, so when Drug Enforcement Administration agents raid medical marijuana dispensaries or administration officials criticize inflexible drug penalties, activists take note.
For Hiatt, even good news – such as Attorney General Eric Holder announcing Monday that federal prosecutors will no longer seek mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenses – is cause for concern.
Hiatt says he expected Holder to unveil federal policy toward the two trailblazing states during his American Bar Association speech.
In retrospect, the sentencing announcement "might be window dressing for the coming crackdown," he said, citing the speculation of a cynical friend. "Maybe they're getting ready to go to court."
Some marijuana activists, such as NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre, believe the Obama administration could have sought – and received – a court injunction banning the new, state-licensed stores from opening. St. Pierre told U.S. News in July that he believed the administration did not do so because they wanted to allow the voter-approved experiments to unfold.
Hiatt feels the administration's drug-sentencing pivot may be overbilled by the press. Justice Department leaders "always have the ability to call up U.S. attorneys and say, 'use your discretion,'" he said. "Those changes aren't permanent, they don't really mean anything. ... The law is still bad and you can end up doing a lot of time for stuff."
In addition to lacking faith in the benevolence of the federal government, Hiatt is also one of the few marijuana reformers who isn't pleased that state voters "legalized" the drug in November, a word he insists is inaccurate to use.
Under Initiative 502, approved by 56 percent of Washington state voters, adults over age 21 can purchase marijuana from state-regulated stores. It's not legal to share the drug with friends or for everyday citizens to grow marijuana plants, a distinction from Colorado's law.
A closed, state-controlled recreational marijuana market won't successfully replace the current black market, Hiatt argues. "The only way to do that is to have a free market."
He fears that rather than a liberalized policy, the state will take an authoritarian approach to drive customers of unregulated medical marijuana dispensaries into tax-generating businesses.
"The whole thing is going to turn into a very expensive boondoggle," he predicted. "They're actually talking about a new form of prohibition, saying, 'let's go bust all of these people to make sure our state businesses work.'"
Washington's paid marijuana consultant, Mark Kleiman, encouraged a skeptical Seattle City Council last week to crack down on illegal marijuana dealers and growers to funnel customers into the new legitimate businesses, a move Hiatt worries could make life difficult for his medical marijuana clients.
A crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries in late July by the DEA prompted worries about the federal approach to state policy. On this note, Hiatt is optimistic; he says the raids "might not mean a damn thing" because all of the shops were associated with past investigations, signaling they are unlikely the first in a new series of busts.
In an interview after those raids, Alison Holcomb, an ACLU attorney who wrote Washington state's marijuana initiative, told U.S. News that the medical dispensaries lack state-level regulation, leaving an opening for the federal government to charge the owners for allegedly selling other drugs, laundering money, transferring large quantities of marijuana or committing other federal offenses.
The closed, state-controlled market established by Initiative 502 intends to avoid federal objections by having a state agency supervise locations to uphold strict standards.
Hiatt suspects there is still no overall Justice Department guidance on marijuana policy in Washington, saying one U.S. Attorney continues to throw the book at pot-growers, while other U.S. attorneys are relatively sedate. "It's awful capricious out there," he said.