A lawsuit against a small town in Washington state could have widespread implications for marijuana legislation across the country. The Wenatchee City Council upholds federal law in terms of granting cannabis business permits, and even though Initiative 502 passed in 2012, the city will not grant licenses for dispensary owners because of marijuana’s criminal status at the federal level.
The case stands to hold the highest stakes yet in the federal prohibition debate — the end results of which will strengthen or destroy marijuana legislation across the country.
“It will be the kind of case I think the U.S. Supreme Court lives for,” said King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg in “Evergreen: the Road to Legalization,” a documentary about the impact of I-502 that was released over the weekend.
Being rejected a license to sell marijuana in a state which had recently legalized its sale is especially frustrating to the lawsuit’s plaintiff, Shaun Preder. Preder is a small business owner who had hoped to open a cannabis shop in the city when recreational sales open next month.
“I’m just trying to move forward with my business,” Preder told the Seattle Times. “I think they should obey state law.”
Preder runs an office furniture store near Seattle, and spent $12,000 in rent for a 3,000 square-foot shop in Wenatchee. The council has refused to grant Preder his license to sell marijuana, pointing to his product’s lack of federal compliance. Preder filed a suit for the license.
Earlier this year, Mayor Frank Kuntz had recommended the city drop its federal requirement from the business license provision to avoid such fights, but the council voted 4-3 to maintain federal compliance. The city’s 33,000 residents were an almost even split in the 2012 vote to legalize recreational marijuana.
Kuntz would not be able to prevent the council from litigation, though he told the Seattle Times he would advise against it.
“They control the checkbook,” he said. “I manage it for them.”
Alison Holcomb, the primary author of I-502 and criminal justice director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state, is ready for such a lawsuit. In fact, she and the ACLU counted on it.
“We need clarity,” Holcomb said. “The federal pre-emption issue hasn’t been resolved.”
Preder’s attorney, Hilary Bricken said in a statement earlier this month that the ACLU was “plantiff-shopping” and was searching for just the right individual to stand behind when a city denied an entrepreneur’s license due to federal prohibition.
“I’m confident the authors of 502 were smart enough to know we would get in this battle,” she said.
Getting into this battle is exactly what other states on the fence about marijuana legalization are waiting for. If the Wenatchee City Council defends their case by claiming federal authority over state authority, the ACLU promises to intervene.
A fight with the ACLU could bring the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, forcing a decision once and for all as to whether or not a federal ban of marijuana means the plant is illegal in states that have voted for recreational and medical use.
If the lawsuit fails and the Supreme Court sides with the city of Wenatchee, federal bans will supersede state laws across the country, which could lead to the return of DEA raids on medical dispensaries in states like California and even recreational dispensaries in Colorado.
If the lawsuit succeeds and Preder is granted his license to sell recreational marijuana in Wenatchee, the highest court in the land will have set precedent for state protection of cannabis.
In other words, this case could signal an end to marijuana prohibition or set back advocacy groups for years.
Alternatively, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) commented last year in an exchange with U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole that clamping down on a state’s decriminalization system carries a different kind of risk.
“Kind of an incentive for a black market,” Leahy said, “isn’t it?”
What do you think? Should cities be able to outlaw cannabis dispensaries?