By Jonathan Kaminsky
SEATTLE, Jan 20 (Reuters) - In a decade with the Drug Enforcement Administration, Patrick Moen rose to supervise a team of agents busting methamphetamine and heroin rings in Oregon - before giving it all up to join the nascent legal marijuana industry in nearby Washington state.
In November, the former federal drug agent quit his post to work for a marijuana industry investment firm, and says he relishes getting in on the ground floor of a burgeoning industry he was once sworn to annihilate.
As managing director of compliance and senior counsel for Seattle-based Privateer Holdings, Moen has added his name to a small but growing list of individuals with unlikely backgrounds who have joined or thrown their support behind state-sanctioned marijuana enterprises.
In Oregon, another former Portland-based DEA agent, Paul Schmidt, who retired from the agency in 2010, recently set up shop as a consultant to medical cannabis businesses after working as a state inspector of medical pot dispensaries in Colorado.
Last year, former Mexican president Vicente Fox visited Seattle to trumpet support for a pot firm fronted by former Microsoft executive Jamen Shively. The Seattle police department is weighing whether to allow officers to moonlight as security guards at pot shops slated to open later this year.
Moen, whose jump has been criticized by his former boss at the DEA, said that even as his profile within the agency rose, he nursed a growing sense that the marijuana cases he worked, and the laws underpinning them, were wrongheaded.
Moen says he is working to foster a reputable pot industry that will hasten an end to the drug's prohibition and allow the DEA to sharpen its focus on drugs that are truly harmful.
"I saw this as an amazing opportunity to be a part of the team that's helping to create this industry, " Moen, 36, told Reuters. "I don't really feel like it's the other side."
While marijuana remains illegal under federal law, some 20 states and Washington, D.C., allow for its medical use. In 2012, voters in Washington state and Colorado became the first to legalize adult recreational use of the drug.
Colorado and Washington state have fed the momentum for pot liberalization efforts elsewhere, with a legalization measure likely to go before Alaska voters in August and activists in Oregon collecting signatures to get a similar initiative on that state's November ballot.
The U.S. Department of Justice announced in August it wouldn't interfere with state efforts to regulate and tax marijuana provided they're able to meet a set of requirements that include keeping it away from children and restricting its flow into other states.
Over the summer, Moen arranged to meet Privateer Chief Executive Officer Brendan Kennedy in a Portland coffee shop, where he gave Kennedy his DEA business card before passing him an envelope. Kennedy feared it contained a subpoena but was relieved to instead find enclosed a copy of Moen's resume, the CEO said.
Colorado this month allowed stores to begin selling weed, a step that is months away in Washington state. These developments, coupled with Moen's own evolving views, made a once unfathomable career shift a possibility, he said.
Among his current assignments, Moen is helping Privateer avoid legal pitfalls as it pushes into the cultivation of medical weed in Canada - a significant leap for a firm that has until recently invested solely in enterprises on the fringes of the marijuana trade.
The pay and benefits of his new job are "close to a wash" with his previous position, Moen says, but include stock options in a company aiming to become an industry cornerstone.
Moen's value to Privateer likely will come in guiding the company on how to steer clear of activities that raise red flags with federal authorities, said Hilary Bricken, a Seattle-based marijuana business lawyer.
"It's extremely ironic," she said. "You go from cracking skulls to supporting the very effort that you once vowed to entirely destroy."
Seattle-based DEA Special Agent in Charge Matthew G. Barnes, the top-ranking DEA official in the Pacific Northwest, called Moen's career change an act of abandonment.
"It is disappointing when law enforcement officers, sworn to uphold the laws of the United States with honor, courage and integrity, abandon their commitment to work in an industry involved in trafficking marijuana," Barnes told Reuters in a statement.
Underscoring the divide between the DEA and an emerging pot industry sanctioned by states, the agency's chief of operations, James Capra, on Wednesday denounced the movement toward ending pot prohibition at a U.S. Senate hearing as "reckless and irresponsible."
But Moen said not all his former colleagues have reacted negatively to his move.
"I've gotten a lot of support from former colleagues," Moen said. "I wasn't sure how guys were going to react and it's been really great." (Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis, Cynthia Johnston and Ken Wills)