Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Feds won't pursue medical pot users

Harborside Health Center is a nonprofit medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Calif. California is one of 14 states where medical marijuana is legal. The drug is effective in treating chronic pain and nausea, among other ailments, advocates say.

New York Times

Harborside Health Center is a nonprofit medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Calif. California is one of 14 states where medical marijuana is legal. The drug is effective in treating chronic pain and nausea, among other ailments, advocates say.

WASHINGTON — People who use marijuana for medical purposes and those who distribute it to them should not face federal prosecution, provided they act according to state law, the Justice Department said 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 that it was committed to the "efficient and rational use" of its resources and that prosecuting patients and distributors who are in "clear and unambiguous compliance" with state laws did not meet that standard.

The move by the Justice Department ended months of uncertainty over how far the Obama White House planned to go in reversing the Bush administration's federal stance on the controversial issue. The previous administration held that authorities should continue to enforce federal drug laws even in states with medical marijuana laws on the books.

"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 Holder said, "but we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal."

The new stance was hardly an enthusiastic embrace of medical marijuana, or the laws that allow it in some states, but signaled clearly that the administration thinks there are more important priorities for prosecutors.

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," and said that pursuing the makers and sellers of illegal drugs, including marijuana, would remain a "core priority."

In its latest reversal of Bush administration social policies that especially rankled liberals — greater openness to gays marrying and serving in the military is another case in point — the administration could risk being seen as taking an ideological stance rather than the pragmatic posture that it tried to strike. So the administration seemed to be drawing a narrow case, as if to pre-empt criticism that it was treating the nation's drug problems with laxity.

The politics swirling around marijuana cross ideological lines in some ways. For instance, in effectively deferring to the states on some issues involving marijuana, the Obama administration is taking what could be seen as a "states' rights" stance more commonly associated with conservatives.

One prominent conservative, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, sharply criticized the Justice Department position, complaining that it would weaken federal enforcement of drug laws.

"By directing federal law enforcement officers to ignore federal drug laws, the administration is tacitly condoning the use of marijuana in the United States," said Smith, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. "If we want to win the war on drugs, federal prosecutors have a responsibility to investigate and prosecute all medical marijuana dispensaries and not just those that are merely fronts for illegal marijuana distribution."

For years, polls have shown widespread public support for making the drug available to relieve the suffering of people who are very ill, and the new position reflected President Barack Obama's positions as a candidate and Holder's declarations in the administration's early days.

But repeated efforts in Congress to block federal prosecutions of medical marijuana have fallen short, and during the Bush administration and earlier this year, the Drug Enforcement Administration raided medical marijuana distributors that violated federal statutes, even if the distributors appeared to be complying with state laws.

The new policy came in a memo from David Ogden, the deputy attorney general, to the U.S. attorneys in the affected states, most notably California.

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.

The turnaround could pave the way for Rhode Island, New Mexico and Michigan to put together marijuana distribution systems for residents in their states, according to Graham Boyd, director of the Drug Law Reform Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. Advocates say marijuana use can help alleviate pain and stimulate appetite in patients suffering from cancer, HIV-AIDS, and other ailments. But the American Medical Association since 2001 has held firm to a policy opposing marijuana for medical purposes.

The White House sought to deflate any impression that Obama would like other states to follow the example of the 14 that make some allowance for medical marijuana. "I'm not going to get into what states should do," the president's chief spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said at a briefing.

Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.

Medical marijuana enforcement

• In June 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government had the discretion to enforce federal marijuana laws even in states permitting medical marijuana.

• The George W. Bush administration's Justice Department led more than 200 federal raids in California alone.

• The federal government is prosecuting more than two dozen medical-marijuana cases.

• During the Bush administration, Drug Enforcement Administration agents shut down 30 to 40 marijuana dispensaries.

• The federal government has won more than 20 convictions against patients and providers.

Read the Justice Department memo

To read a PDF of the Justice Department memo announcing the new policy, go to

links.tampabay.com.

Feds won't pursue medical pot users 10/19/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 20, 2009 8:53am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, New York Times.
    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Clearwater woman dies after losing control of SUV, flipping in Palm Harbor

    Accidents

    A Clearwater woman died early Tuesday morning when she lost control of her SUV and crashed in Palm Harbor, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

  2. Countryside alum A.J. Andrews lands in ESPN's annual body issue

    Softballpreps

    A.J. Andrews has taken over the spotlight in softball. Last year, the former Countryside High and LSU standout became the first female to win a Rawlings Gold Glove in the award's 59-year existence.

    Former LSU/Countryside softball player AJ Andrews, now w/ Akron, is the first female to win a Rawlings Gold Glove in the award's 59-year history. (Courtesy of Rawlings)
  3. Bill Nelson Video: Talk to this Florida mom before you call Obamacare a failure

    Blogs

    Sen. Bill Nelson spoke on the senate floor about the health care reform debate, sharing the story of a single Florida mother trying to keep alive her daughter, kindergarten teacher Megan Geller, who died at age 28 in 2015 after a two-year battle with leukemia.

     

  4. Five ideas for party foods to bring to your potluck

    Cooking

    What's in a name? That which we call a casserole by any other name is still, well, a casserole. Generally a go-to for potlucks, casseroles are quick and easy to transfer, and they can feed a lot of people. But take a look at your next potluck table and count how many casseroles there are. You can change the game …

    iStockphoto
  5. Florida education news: School budgets, hiring freeze, new schools and more

    Blogs

    IN THE BOOKS: Gov. Rick Scott signs a new Florida Education Funding Program and several other education-related bills into Florida law. This year's new education laws …

    Gov. Rick Scott signed HB 7069 earlier in June, and on Monday added seven more education-related bills to Florida law.