In Part I of our “Understanding Washington Initiative 502” (“I-502”) series, we described how I-502’s licensing regime is scheduled to go into effect late next year. There is no question that I-502 legalizes possession of certain amounts of marijuana under Washington law, and the state licensing structure aimed at regulating the production, distribution, and retail sale of marijuana reflects this fact. But as a Schedule I drug subject to the federal Controlled Substances Act (“Act”), possession and sale of marijuana remains illegal under federal law. I-502 does not change this basic fact, regardless of whether the Washington State Liquor Control Board succeeds in establishing the rigorous regulatory regime envisioned by I-502.
I-502 intends to establish a well-regulated market that will allow Washington state to tax a commodity that had been pushed into the underground economy. Achieving that goal depends on capital investments in the regulated marijuana market in Washington State. But will investors be willing to fund a marijuana start-up if federal law diverges significantly from state law – particularly when federal law includes criminal sanctions? That will depend on the federal government’s response to states like Washington and Colorado that have chosen to de-criminalize marijuana.