This week's DEA raids in Seattle are prompting Washington residents to wonder what effect, if any, state law has on federal drug enforcement.
Pot dispensaries that are legal under Washington state law were hit by federal drug agents as part of "a two-year investigation," Seattle's KIRO-TV reports. Agents raided medical marijuana providers in Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, and Gig Harbor.
Dispensary owners fear for their livelihood as their "legal" operations are under siege by federal law enforcement.
Washington's Medical Marijuana Laws
Washington is among 19 states that have legalized medicinal use of marijuana, which allows qualified patients to use cannabis to treat chronic and terminal illnesses like cancer and AIDS.
While the state's medical marijuana laws originally did not provide for medical marijuana dispensaries, Initiative 502, passed by voters in 2012, provided for marijuana retailers. Both medicinal and non-medicinal use of the drug is allowed under state law, with some exceptions.
So it is understandably confusing that federal agents would seek to raid these "legal" establishments. But as dispensary owner Casey Lee told KIRO-TV, Drug Enforcement Administration agents explained to him that "you guys are state legal, but you are still not federally legal."
Federal v. State Law
Marijuana possession and sales, for recreation or medical purposes is still illegal under federal law, despite the fact that states like Washington have decriminalized the drug.
Although DEA enforcement of these laws has been scattershot over the past decade, the federal government can still legally execute search warrants on dispensaries for violating federal law, including seizing approximately $2,500 worth of cannabis intended for medical patients from Lee's clinic in Olympia, reports Seattle's KING-TV.
When state and federal laws conflict on marijuana legalization, federal laws will pre-empt the state laws. That means Washington's legalization is no defense to a federal drug charge.
Property Is at Risk
Although the state's legalization of marijuana has seen the return of medical cannabis that was seized by Washington state authorities, marijuana seized by DEA agents is still subject to federal law.
Even if the state law says that legal marijuana possession should not result in forfeiture of property, profits and goods from Washington's medical marijuana facilities are not protected from seizure by federal agents.