AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We heard elsewhere in our program about testimony today from Attorney General Eric Holder. Speaking to the Senate Judiciary Committee, he addressed the issue of marijuana legalization. Holder was asked what the Justice Department plans to do about Colorado and Washington. Those two states have defied federal law by legalizing the recreational use of pot. The attorney general responded that the feds are still mulling their options.
ERIC HOLDER: I expect that we will have an ability to announce what our policy is going to be relatively soon.
CORNISH: The administration has been saying this for months. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle, the continuing uncertainty is tempering hopes of a marijuana gold rush.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Here in Washington state, the job of setting up the legal pot market has been delegated to the state liquor control board. From the get-go, the board admitted it didn't know much about pot, and it's held public forums to get input from people who are, shall we say, more experienced. Longtime pot producers like John Eskola are celebrating the new reality.
JOHN ESKOLA: It's a very emotional thing for me. It's been a war for 40 years. The war is over. We've won.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
ESKOLA: We've won.
KASTE: Maybe. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law. President Obama's re-election raised hopes that the feds would turn a blind eye, but then last month, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske told a Canadian news magazine that enforcement against distributors and large-scale growers would continue.
RYAN ESPEGARD: People are trying to understand the business risks.
KASTE: Ryan Espegard is an attorney who's waded into the novel field of pot production law. He says his potential clients are less worried about the feds than they are about the still-unwritten state regulations and how those might affect the bottom line.
ESPEGARD: If there are heavy regulations, obviously, there's going to be overhead costs associated with the business that may want to keep some people away. And right now, there aren't a whole lot of answers because the state liquor control board is still in their room making process and really just getting started.
KASTE: One unanswered question: How much security will the state require?
JEREMY KELSEY: This glass is bulletproof. That box is bulletproof.
KASTE: Jeremy Kelsey runs Medical Marijuana Patients Network, a medical marijuana outlet north of Seattle. If his operation is any indication, the state-licensed stores will be looking at some big up-front investments.
KELSEY: Of course, we have 24-hour monitoring. We have...
KASTE: You've got some serious ventilation going, I can tell.
KELSEY: Yeah, yeah. We have a lot of - obviously, you've got to have a lot of ventilation. You've got to have dehumidifiers, air movers, air-conditioning units, all the stuff to produce high-quality cannabis.
KASTE: It's assumed medical pot growers like Kelsey will have the inside track in the new recreational market since they already have the know-how. Kelsey predicts recreational pot will make him more money, but because of the uncertainty with the feds, he's not going to move too quickly.
KELSEY: As far as being the first, that's not me, you know, but I'm going to acquire those licenses. And I'm going to sit on them, and I'm going to watch.
KASTE: The state plans to start issuing licenses for legal pot production in August, assuming there's no pre-emptive move by the Justice Department. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.