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The Monitor's View

A federal misstep with medical marijuana?

The problem with the Obama administration's new directive limiting federal prosecution of medical marijuana is that it encourages those who would legalize the drug.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / October 20, 2009

The federal government has limited resources to fight drugs, and funds should not be wasted on prosecuting users and providers of medical marijuana who comply with state laws, the Obama administration said this week.

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While this argument may indeed seem a sensible prioritizing of federal effort and dollars, the White House and the public should realize it comes with a cost.

That cost is Washington's tacit approval of state-sanctioned medical marijuana, which the drug's proponents will take as a green light to push even harder for their ultimate goal: full legalization of marijuana use and distribution.

Backers would like to see the buying and selling of pot regulated and taxed much like alcohol and tobacco. Their patient and well-funded route to this goal is through the states, with one avenue being state legalization of medical marijuana.

Since 1996, 13 states have allowed such use – in defiance of a federal statute that outlaws marijuana as a controlled substance. Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration does not approve of marijuana as safe or effective for any medicinal use, and the drug has never gone through the FDA's rigorous approval process. Yet several more states are considering medical marijuana laws at the urging of pro-pot and patients-rights groups.

Their stated reason is compassion. They argue that marijuana alleviates suffering for certain illnesses. No one wants to deny compassion for the sick, but Americans need to be aware of the larger context in this debate.

To begin with, state medical marijuana laws have opened the door to distribution beyond those who are ill. California shines glaringly as Exhibit A – just like the green neon signs that advertise so many of its medical marijuana dispensaries.

The Golden State was the first to legalize marijuana for medical purposes and its law is notoriously loose. All it takes to buy pot is a doctor's permission – and some doctors are willing to fill prescriptions on the thinnest of pretenses. With hundreds of marijuana storefronts in Los Angeles, the city put a moratorium on new dispensaries in 2007. A Superior Court judge ruled this week that an extension of the moratorium is invalid, a move that is likely to spur the opening of even more pot shops.

Other states have looked aghast at California's experience. They've tried to fashion stricter laws. For example, the Minnesota legislature this year amended a medical marijuana bill so that it applied only to terminally ill patients.