Since 2010, the FBI has run criminal background checks on marijuana entrepreneurs seeking to do business in Colorado. But now, the agency is refusing to provide the same service to officials in Washington State.
The decision has put the FBI at cross-purposes with itself. On the one hand, the feds want to keep the criminal element out of the weed industry in states that allow it. On the other, cannabis remains illegal under federal law, and running background checks would help states and businesses break that law.
“The federal government has not stated why it has not yet agreed to conduct national background checks on our behalf,” said Brian Smith, spokesman for the Washington State Liquor Control Board. “However, the Liquor Control Board is ready to deliver fingerprints as soon as [the Department of Justice] is ready.”
Washington legalized weed for all adults over 21 in the 2012 election, as did Colorado. The Obama administration could have cited federal drug law and intervened, but instead Attorney General Eric Holder announced the feds would leave legal pot alone as long as states and the industry enforce several priorities, such as keeping criminals out of the business.
Without national background checks, that becomes harder to do. Officials can still use checks run by the Washington State Patrol, which will turn up criminal records in the state. But there is only a three-month residency requirement to work in legal weed, and some prospects have moved from out of state.
Their arrests and convictions could only be caught by an FBI check. The agency has run them for Colorado’s medical marijuana program since 2010, so it’s not clear why the feds decided to draw the line at Washington.
“Both Washington State and Washington, D.C., have been unequivocal that they want organized crime out of the marijuana business,” said Alison Holcomb, the Seattle lawyer who wrote the state’s pot law. “Requiring and ensuring nationwide background checks on Washington State licenses is a no-brainer.”
So far, three people have been given cultivation licenses in Washington. None of them underwent a national background check, even though the Liquor Control Board requires it.
Both the Justice Department and the FBI declined to comment when reached by the Associated Press.
The FBI’s situation is just one current political predicament caused by the clash between state and federal cannabis law. The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to sue Obama to force him to stop legal weed; the bill is likely to die in the Senate.
The president also gave an interview earlier this year in which he said he considers marijuana less dangerous than alcohol. But he hedged on whether he supports reclassifying the drug so it could be legalized at the federal level, saying that should be left to Congress.