The FBI has finally agreed to give Washington State officials access to a criminal-records database so they can clear newcomers to the state’s recreational pot industry.

The Washington State Liquor Control Board has been trying for a year to conduct criminal background checks of people who apply to run pot shops and other marijuana businesses.finger print But the FBI refused, even though it willingly helped Colorado do the same thing.

In a statement to the Associated Press April 10, the U.S. Department of Justice said its new policy in Washington is consistent with its priorities for legal weed. One of the biggest: keeping criminals, gangs and cartels out of the industry.

For many in the marijuana world, it’s a relief. It ensures they won’t be working with a criminal element and it makes it less likely the federal government will find an excuse to crack down once the shops have opened in the summer.

“It’s an issue of consistency,” said Alison Holcomb, the Seattle attorney who wrote Washington’s marijuana law. “The DOJ set forth a specific set of goals it expected Washington to meet, and the refusal to perform background checks appeared to be an obstacle to allowing the state to meet those goals.”

To be fair, Justice had to choose between what it considered two evils: encouraging Washington’s program to devolve into criminality or helping the state break federal drug laws. In the end, Attorney General Eric Holder apparently decided it was better to let legal pot go ahead at the risk to federal law.

In Washington, the Liquor Control Board said it would run criminal background checks on everyone who has received a license and everyone who applied. Those applications are still being processed.

The state uses a point system to rate each person’s criminal history. If the score is too high, the applicant or license holder will be disqualified. A felony conviction within the last decade is usually disqualifying.

marijuana plant leavesThere are ways to check criminal history without the assistance of the FBI, but they’re scattered and unreliable. Washington has access to the database kept by the State Patrol, but that only covers in-state convictions. Many prospective business owners have come from out of state to join the marijuana industry.

There are private services that claim to perform “national” criminal history checks, but these are spotty at best and have no kind of official certification.

So without the FBI, Washington would mostly be limited to stopping resident felons from joining the industry. Outsiders with criminal records likely would have gotten through unchecked.

The DOJ was careful to stress that background checks are only one of the steps required of states and businesses that deal in legal weed. There are eight of them, as the DOJ announced last summer.

But the decision by the agency clears an important hurdle that threatened to hamper legal weed before it got started. Jaimie Smith, spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, said the policy change was “certainly helpful in our efforts to move forward and establish a strong regulatory framework.”


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