After a year of requests, the U.S. Justice Department said Thursday it is giving Washington state access to an FBI database so it can conduct nationwide background checks on people who apply to run legal marijuana businesses.
The department said allowing the checks is consistent with its priorities in letting legal marijuana experiments in Washington and Colorado move forward — including keeping people with troublesome criminal histories out of the industry. Washington state officials started asking last April for permission to run the checks.
Without explanation, the federal agency declined to respond, even though it had allowed similar checks on medical-marijuana licensees in Colorado. Washington state eventually started issuing licenses without the nationwide background checks.
The discrepancy highlighted the difficulty the feds face as they allow the states to experiment with regulating a drug that’s long been illegal under federal law.
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The Obama administration has said it wants the states to make sure pot revenue doesn’t go to organized crime and that state marijuana industries don’t become a cover for the trafficking of other illegal drugs. At the same time, federal authorities don’t want to actually help the states violate federal law.
Responding to an Associated Press inquiry on the topic last month, the Justice Department said only that it was reviewing its background-check policy “to ensure a consistent national approach.”
The department’s statement Thursday emphasized that while the FBI maintains the database, states that want to license medical or recreational-marijuana operations will be doing the checks themselves.
It also stressed that the nationwide background checks don’t give the businesses or the states that regulate them a free pass: They’re still expected to meet eight federal law-enforcement priorities the Justice Department outlined in a memo last summer.
“This decision to permit states and localities to perform their own background checks for marijuana licenses is consistent with our previous guidance designed to protect public safety and ensure strict regulation of those businesses,” the statement said.
Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, said in an email that the decision was “certainly helpful in our efforts to move forward and establish a strong regulatory framework.”
Alison Holcomb, a Seattle lawyer who drafted Washington state’s legal pot law, called the change a relief.
“It’s an issue of consistency,” she said. “The (Justice Department) set forth a specific set of goals it expected Washington to meet, and the refusal to perform nationwide background checks appeared to be an obstacle to allowing the state to meet those goals.”
Washington state issued its first pot-growing license a month ago and has issued nine more since then. The state’s Liquor Control Board said Thursday it will conduct nationwide background checks on people who have already received licenses, as well as those whose applications are still being processed.
In Washington, officials use a point system to determine whether someone’s criminal history is too concerning to grant a license to grow, process or sell marijuana under the state law passed by voters in 2012. A felony within the past 10 years normally disqualifies an applicant, as does being under federal or state supervision for a felony conviction.
In the absence of national background checks, officials have relied on background checks by the Washington State Patrol to find any in-state arrests or convictions.
Applicants must have lived in Washington state for three months before applying, and many are longtime Washington residents whose possible criminal history would likely turn up on a State Patrol check.
Others specifically moved to the state in hopes of joining the new industry.
Applicants are required to disclose their entire criminal history — with omissions punishable by license rejection.
It remains to be seen whether Washington state can ensure that its licensed marijuana businesses won’t become a haven for criminals or a public-safety threat, Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said in a statement released by her office.
“The jury is out — but this gives regulators a strong tool to ensure the public interest,” Durkan said.