From the New York Times
October 20, 2009
Justice Dept. to Stop Pursuit of Medical Marijuana Use
By DAVID STOUT
WASHINGTON — People who use marijuana for medical purposes and those who distribute it should not face federal prosecution, provided they act according to state law, the Justice Department said on Monday in a directive with far-reaching political and legal implications.
In a memorandum to federal prosecutors in the 14 states that make some allowance for the use of marijuana for medical purposes, the department said it was committed to the “efficient and rational use” of its resources, and that going after individuals who were in “clear and unambiguous compliance” with state laws did not meet that standard.
“It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement accompanying the memo. “But we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal.”
In emphasizing that it would continue to pursue those who use the concept of medical marijuana as a ruse, the department said, “Marijuana distribution in the United States remains the single largest source of revenue for the Mexican cartels.” Going after the makers and sellers of illegal drugs, including marijuana, will remain a “core priority.”
The Justice Department policy statement, foreshadowed since shortly after President Obama took office, was laid out on Monday in the announcement by Mr. Holder, who made public a memo from David W. Ogden, the deputy attorney general, to the United States attorneys in the affected states, most notably California.
The announcement formalizes the Obama administration’s departure from the policies of former President George W. Bush, under whose administration federal agents raided medical marijuana distributors that violated federal statutes, even if the distributors appeared to be complying with state laws.
Advocates of medical marijuana say the substance can reduce chronic pain, nausea and other ailments associated with cancer and other serious illnesses. In 1996, California became the first state to make it legal to sell marijuana to people with doctors’ prescriptions. The other states that allow some use of marijuana for medical purposes are Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
“This is a major step forward,” said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, which supports legalizing the substance. “This change in policy moves the federal government dramatically toward respecting scientific and practical reality.”
The Justice Department indicated that the memo should not be interpreted as legalizing marijuana. “Rather, this memorandum is intended solely as a guide to the exercise of investigative and prosecutorial discretion,” the department said.
But there will inevitably be clashes, in political arenas and in courtrooms, over what constitutes “clear and unambiguous compliance” with state laws, and whether marijuana distributors ostensibly in business to provide the substance for medical use are being infiltrated by drug cartels.
Solomon Moore contributed reporting from Los Angeles.