Two candidates for Congress are at odds on what to do with state-licensed marijuana businesses: Ban them or bank them?
First-term U.S. Rep. Denny Heck of Olympia has been trying to win access to bank accounts for pot growers and retailers so an all-cash industry doesn’t tempt violence.
His challenger, Joyce McDonald of Puyallup, has been part of a Pierce County Council majority that barred marijuana businesses from the unincorporated areas of the county as long as the drug they sell is federally illegal. She had proposed an even stricter ban.
“The fact is, we cannot ignore federal law. I took an oath when I was elected to public office to uphold the Constitution,” said McDonald, a Republican. “I can’t turn around like Mr. Heck has done and some other day when it doesn’t suit me, say I don’t think it’s relevant at this point. The law is always relevant.”
Heck, a Democrat, predicts armed robberies, organized crime and sales to kids if the new businesses authorized by Initiative 502 are forced to use cash.
“I have two objectives,” Heck said. “Keep marijuana out of the hands of children, and cash out of the hands of gangs and cartels.”
The 10th Congressional District has Joint Base Lewis-McChord at its center. It reaches southwest to Olympia and Shelton and northeast to Puyallup.
Its voters favored marijuana legalization, giving 54 percent of the vote to 2012’s I-502.
“Those are the bosses, and the bosses said they wanted to move in this direction,” Heck said.
Heck is nearly four decades into a political career that included stints as state House majority leader and a governor’s chief of staff. But he might be part of something newer: politicians, and not just big-city ultra-liberals, who don’t shy away from marijuana as a political third rail.
Pro-legalization activists detect changing attitudes since Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana, though still far shy of a majority in Congress.
Heck voted for I-502 — at the urging of his wife, he says, a retired Jefferson Middle School principal.
McDonald voted no. She says it’s too bad “big-money people came in to Washington state to buy an election.”
“As the statistics and the research show, marijuana is dangerous for children,” McDonald said, “and I believe we are sending the absolute wrong message to our children.”
Heck said kids unfortunately already had access to pot. The new stores are for customers 21 and older.
In Colorado there have been reports of a small but growing number of emergency-room visits and poison-control calls for kids consuming marijuana-infused food.
McDonald was a law-and-order legislator in the state House, where she served five terms and won tougher penalties for drunken drivers and a measure targeting sales of drug paraphernalia by head shops.
On the Pierce County Council, she joined fellow Republicans in effectively banning state-licensed marijuana businesses from unincorporated areas over a veto from County Executive Pat McCarthy.
The council’s opposition drove away at least one applicant, Ron Burke, who said he fled Pierce County to apply to grow pot in Mason County.
Others could stay and sue. McDonald is not worried about legal challenges, saying the law is on the council’s side.
Along with another Democrat from a suburban district in a state with licensed marijuana businesses, Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Colorado, Heck has proposed making it federally legal for banks to do business with the companies.
Aware that their proposal had little chance in the Republican-controlled House, the lawmakers also pressed for a resolution by the Obama administration.
The Justice and Treasury departments provided banks with guidance on Feb. 14. They promised nothing but strongly hinted they would look the other way and set out a framework for banks wanting to take the risk.
The effort may be bearing some fruit. Seattle-based Salal Credit Union said last week it would test out accounts for growers and processors. Numerica Credit Union is serving the same kinds of businesses in the Spokane area. Others may be participating more quietly.
Legalization opponents question the effort. “Do we really want our banking system to now be financing and helping to promote (among other outcomes) these edibles which are sending people to the ER?” asked Kevin Sabet, director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida.
McDonald takes their side. “When a business is illegal, our issue is not whether they’re dealing in cash,” she said.
She said Heck is putting the cart before the horse — promoting “pot dealers getting banking privileges” before changing the law by moving pot out of its Schedule 1 classification for dangerous drugs.
Not that she favors changing the classification. She says it should stay where it is. Heck says he favors moving pot out of Schedule 1 but hasn’t made an effort to do so.
Steve Fox, an adviser and lobbyist for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said Heck’s attempts at “resolving the untenable banking situation have demonstrated true leadership.”
“He and his staff have helped craft legislation, engaged frequently with key federal agencies, and even pressed Treasury Secretary (Jack) Lew at a public hearing to appreciate the urgency of fixing the banking problem.”
Heck has been in a key spot to deal with the banking issue as a member of the House Financial Services Committee.
A spot on the committee also helps with campaign fundraising.
Commercial banks have given Heck more than $24,000 for this year’s election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — more than most in Congress, although a small sum compared to what some lawmakers have received.
Credit unions have contributed $12,800 to his re-election, according to the center, more than all but four fellow House Democrats and more than all but seven majority Republicans.
It will be difficult to defeat Heck in a Democratic-leaning district drawn with him in mind. Some Republicans are optimistic, pointing out their 2012 candidate for governor, Rob McKenna, won 49 percent of the vote there.
But Heck overwhelmingly defeated then-Pierce County Councilman Dick Muri with nearly 59 percent of the vote.
His fundraising dwarfed Muri’s, and he has a more than $800,000 head start on McDonald, whose next campaign finance report in July will reveal how her early fundraising efforts have fared.
“Joyce McDonald is a credible candidate. She’s qualified to serve in Congress. She’s won elections before,” former state GOP chairman Chris Vance said. “But she’s starting very late in a very difficult district against a guy who can raise a ton of money.”