FBI won't run checks on Washington state pot business hopefuls

OLYMPIA, Washington Fri Mar 14, 2014 6:43pm EDT

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OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - The FBI is refusing to run background checks on people who want to get into the marijuana business in Washington state, regulators said on Friday, in a move that could complicate efforts to keep hardened criminals out of the nascent industry.

Washington state and Colorado in 2012 became the first states to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, though it remains illegal under federal law. They are among 20 states and the District of Columbia that allow medical marijuana.

The FBI, which does run background checks on Colorado's marijuana business applicants, declined to say why it will not do the same for Washington state.

The Washington State Liquor Control Board, which regulates the state's recreational pot industry, is relying on the Washington State Patrol to run background checks on license applicants, and has begun issuing growing and processing licenses despite its own rules requiring licensees to undergo a national criminal background check.

"The federal government has not stated why it has not yet agreed to conduct national background checks on our behalf," said Brian Smith, spokesman for Washington's Liquor Control Board in a statement. "However, the Liquor Control Board is ready to deliver fingerprints as soon as DOJ (U.S. Department of Justice) is ready."

Under Washington state law, a felony conviction within the past decade would disqualify a pot business applicant, as would multiple misdemeanors.

Hilary Bricken, a Seattle-based marijuana business attorney, said the discrepancy may stem from the difference between Colorado's tightly-regulated medical marijuana system and Washington's comparatively lax medical pot regime.

"Colorado has a different relationship with the federal government because it originally started out with strict regulations," Bricken said.

The FBI has run nationwide background checks on medical marijuana license applicants for Colorado since 2010, said Daria Serna, spokeswoman for that state's Department of Revenue. It continues to run background checks on individuals seeking medical and recreational pot worker licenses in the state.

The apparent inconsistency in FBI policy underscores the awkward position of federal law enforcement with regard to state-sanctioned marijuana.

On one hand, the drug remains illegal under federal law. On the other, the DOJ has urged the two states to tightly control their pot markets, including keeping out hardened criminals.

The FBI had no comment on the matter, said spokeswoman Allison Mahan, referring questions to the DOJ.

"To ensure a consistent national approach, the department has been reviewing its background check policies, and we hope to have guidance for states in the near term," the Justice Department said in a statement. A spokeswoman said the department would have no further comment.

Philip Dawdy, a longtime Seattle-based marijuana activist, said he was surprised and worried by the FBI's unwillingness to conduct the background checks for Washington state.

"Somebody could conceivably slide through the system who's got a major criminal history in other states that isn't going to get detected," Dawdy said. "That's a real concern on a policy and a public safety level."

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Grant McCool)

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