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.