WASHINGTON – Medical marijuana users and their suppliers in the 14 states that allow medical use of marijuana can exhale easier after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that the Justice Department would not pursue cases against them.
Federal priorities will shift to prosecuting “significant traffickers of illegal drugs,” including marijuana,under guidelines in a U.S. Justice Department memo.
Federal prosecutors will follow the new guidelines in the states where laws allow medicinal marijuana operations,said Tracy Schmaler,deputy director of the Justice Department's public affairs office.
According to the memo,written by David W. Ogden,deputy attorney general,prosecuting medical users is “unlikely to be an efficient use of limited federal resources. On the other hand,prosecution of commercial enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana for profit continues to be an enforcement priority.”
That could include those masking illegal activity with apparent compliance with state laws.
The new policy provides uniform guidelines to federal prosecutors for enforcing medicinal marijuana laws that vary from state-to-state.
Fourteen states – Alaska,California,Colorado,Hawaii,Maine,Maryland,Michigan,Montana,Nevada,New Mexico,Oregon,Rhode Island,Vermont and Washington – have laws permitting patients to smoke pot.
California Attorney General Jerry Brown issued a statement about the policy change:
“This policy leaves fully in place federal and state laws prohibiting the illegal use of drugs and at the same time recognizes the limited exception for the use of medicinal marijuana.”
The Justice Department memo says the presence of guns,sales to minors or amounts of marijuana inconsistent with medical use are among actions that would indicate violations of state laws.
Some states sanction dispensaries to supply patients with the herb,while others allow users to grow their own supplies. California and Colorado allow the operation of dispensaries. New Mexico and Rhode Island are in the process of licensing providers.
“This is a policy of showing respect for these state laws,working with state and local officials rather than against them,” said Bruce Mirken,spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, which describes itself as the largest marijuana policy reform organization.
Marijuana reform advocates view the new guidelines as a step forward to complete medicinal marijuana policy reform.
“This policy does not completely solve the problem of allowing patients access since it only deals with the states where there is state laws making it legal,” Mirken said. “It is a significant step,and it's about time.”
State medicinal marijuana laws have been targeted by stringent federal enforcement policies in previous administrations,Mirken said. The medicinal pot-smoking market has been viewed “as something to be ignored or attacked,if possible.”
The administration of George W. Bush arrested marijuana-smoking patients and authorized providers even if they were complying with state laws,Mirken said.
The new guidelines are not foolproof. The memo recommends actions be reviewed individually.
The guidelines allow interpretation,so advocates such as the Marijuana Policy Project said their groups will “see how the implementation goes and whether the spirit that seems to be behind this is really followed.”
Mirken said the policy may remove one obstacle that has caused state legislators to hesitate about passing medical marijuana laws.
“A lot of legislators have worried about getting into a fight with the feds. This has cleared the way for states to consider these proposals without worry,” Mirken said.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the attorney general have talked about this since the beginning of the Obama administration,Schmaler said.