Washington state lawmakers must set aside an increased share of marijuana tax dollars to specifically address combating sophisticated illegal marijuana grow operations.
When Washington voters decided in 2012 to allow the sale of recreational marijuana, they were clear about one of the things they wanted: to take the criminal element out of marijuana.
After all, the initiative sponsors stated in the voter’s pamphlet that legalization would take marijuana profits “out of the hands of violent organized crime.”
State leaders got the message. In January 2013, Gov. Jay Inslee announced, “It’s very important for us to give the federal government confidence that we’re doing everything possible to achieve the goals of this initiative, which is to reduce the criminal association with marijuana.”
Unfortunately, the state is not doing enough to keep its promise to voters. The net result is urban, suburban and rural Washington neighborhoods being blighted by houses turned into illegal marijuana grows, often by organized criminal groups.
Many of these grows are funded by money coming from overseas and take advantage of the state’s ineffective enforcement of marijuana laws. Since marijuana sells for considerably more in states where it remains illegal, these groups are shipping their product out of state, making millions of dollars in illegal and untaxed profits.
As the chief federal law enforcement officer for Western Washington, I see the evidence piling up. Just a couple of weeks ago, federal, state and local law enforcement officials executed search warrants at 17 locations in the Puget Sound region, and seized nearly 4,000 marijuana plants. To fund these grow operations, almost $600,000 in wire transfers were sent from China and laundered through a complex web of bank accounts and lines of credit.
Last November, in Grays Harbor County and in King County, hundreds of law enforcement officials worked together on an investigation involving 50 locations, more than 32,000 marijuana plants and 44 individuals — many Chinese nationals — who grew and transported illegal marijuana.
In each case, the evidence demonstrates that hundreds of thousands of dollars is coming in from overseas to purchase homes for cash. These homes are used to grow unregulated marijuana — creating serious fire hazards, making neighbors fear reprisal from growers and leaving behind toxic properties that blight our communities. As one local law enforcement officer put it, the impact in his rural county has been a “loss of a sense of security.”
These are not isolated examples. Sheriffs and police chiefs across Western Washington have told me about similar illegal marijuana grows, while local prosecutors have described cases stacked up in their offices because of a lack of resources to prosecute them effectively.
Why should Washingtonians care? First and foremost, because they voted to take the criminal element out of marijuana. Last year, Washington took in $319 million in marijuana taxes. The state must set aside an increased share of those funds specifically to address the illegal-marijuana marketplace. The funds currently set aside simply are not enough.
Sending additional funds to affected counties and municipalities would make a significant difference in the number of prosecutors and investigators able to address this problem. In contrast, Oregon specifically sets aside 15 percent of its marijuana tax receipts for law enforcement. Washington does not even come close.
Washingtonians also should care because no matter your view of marijuana, allowing illegal grows to flourish and millions of dollars in illegal funds to flood into our communities is a recipe for more crime. Organized criminal groups will do what it takes to protect millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains. This means an increase in corruption, violence and illegal firearms. In some neighborhoods, violent attempts to rip off illegal grow houses are a real problem.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made clear that combating marijuana-related crime is the job of each U.S. Attorney based on local circumstances. Those of us in federal law enforcement in Western Washington are committed to doing our part, but we need the state to step up and take the lead as it promised it would.
It was the state’s decision to set up a regulated marijuana marketplace, and thus it is the state’s responsibility to enforce its laws, including against those who set up illegal and unregulated grows. Showing that a regulated marketplace can successfully address the harms associated with marijuana — whether related to organized criminal groups, underage use, substance abuse or otherwise — is essential to the safety and well-being of all of us. Now is the time for Washington to get this important decision right.