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Medical marijuana: The Justice Department speaks – again

Medical marijuana suppliers complain that the Justice Department is tightening the federal government's approach to enforcement. That's a disingenuous response to the department's latest directive that medical marijuana is not a business – though suppliers sure want it to be.

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Federal prosecutors and enforcement agencies are unlikely to use scarce resources to arrest individual users, regardless of whether or not they have a medical recommendation, or whether the recommendation pertains to AIDS or anxiety.

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However, suppliers are a legitimate target. Some dispensaries operate under state laws that protect "caregivers." But they are caregivers only in the sense that pharmaceutical companies and drug store chains are care-givers, which is to say only in a truly tortured sense of the term. The plain reading of "caregiver" is not a business but an individual, such as a friend or family member who is caring for the person who is ill.

Targeting tax revenue from marijuana

Overall, the Justice Department has been clear and consistent in its policy. If there is something new, it is the explicit statement that state and local laws do not protect "those who engage in transactions involving the proceeds" of selling drugs. They face prosecution under "federal money laundering statutes and other federal financing laws."

That may be a warning to state and local governments not to plan on collecting taxes on medical marijuana – and perhaps an advance warning not to expect to collect taxes if a state legalized marijuana more generally, as California's failed Proposition 19 almost did last year.

The nation is trying to sort out whether it wants marijuana to be a medicine, a legal intoxicant that businesses can produce for recreational users, or both – or neither. And if a medicine, is it only for certain serious conditions, or for run-of-the-mill stresses, aches, and pains?

The Justice Department is accommodating local autonomy with respect to medical use by grievously ill individuals, but not for businesses trying to supply the general marijuana market. Those who want to exploit medical marijuana to achieve backdoor legalization may be disappointed, but they really have no cause to be surprised – let alone outraged – by the Justice Department's position.

Jonathan Caulkins is Stever professor of operations research and public policy at Carnegie Mellon Univeristy's Heinz College. He is also coauthor, with Mark Kleiman and Angela Hawken, of the recent book "Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know."