Why so many illegal pot dispensaries? Ask the feds

U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan is sounding properly stern about the Legislature’s failure to clean up the “medical” marijuana trafficking that threatens the state’s attempt to legalize and regulate marijuana.

What she neglects to mention is the U.S. Justice Department’s large role in enabling that trafficking.

Commercial marijuana dispensaries – criminal enterprises under state and federal law – barely existed in this state five years ago, when Eric Holder became U.S. attorney general. Now they probably number in the hundreds – Seattle and Tacoma are rife with them – and most cater to ordinary drug seekers.

The particularly despicable ones peddle marijuana to minors. A 2012 Seattle School District survey indicated that more than a third of its marijuana-using students reported getting their drugs from “medical” outlets.

As Durkan is pointing out, Washington can’t move marijuana into a licensed and tightly regulated system – as promised by Initiative 502 – while simultaneously tolerating an illegal undergrowth of unlicensed and unregulated dispensaries. The 2014 Legislature was supposed to do something about this, but lawmakers dithered until adjournment.

Blame also belongs with the feds, though. The jungle of outlaw dispensaries wouldn’t have taken root in the first place but for Holder’s initial lack of interest in enforcement.

Holder’s predecessors were hard-nosed about commercial sales of marijuana under medical pretexts. When he took office, he stated that he would not prosecute medical marijuana operations that complied with the laws of their states.

That would have been fine if he’d meant it. But in Western Washington, the Justice Department also stopped raiding dispensaries operating outside state restrictions. Given the money to be had in the illegal drug trade, dispensaries inevitably proliferated.

Western Washington’s dispensaries have been especially cavalier about state law. In an interview with KUOW radio a week ago, Durkan stated what’s been obvious since she arrived in 2009: “Under Washington state law, dispensaries are not legal. Every dispensary that is operating is an illegal business.”

Most of these illegal enterprises have sprung up on Durkan’s watch. That’s partly because Durkan’s office has targeted only the worst of the worst – operations that violate federal laws in particularly spectacular ways.

The U.S. attorney’s office does have other federal priorities to attend to, including economic crimes, and heroin and meth smuggling. It obviously can’t prosecute hundreds of dispensaries.

But Durkan could make a much larger dent in the racket with a few more busts of small-time operators, the kind who might not be in cahoots with criminal syndicates yet do peddle pot to healthy youths with quack “medical” papers.

Raise the risks enough, and dealers will get out of the business on their own. Right now, Durkan is letting them sleep far too easily at night.