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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.

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Yet Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty wisely vetoed the bill in May. He said he shared law enforcement concerns about expanded drug use. (Consider the problems with controlling wider use of prescribed painkillers, for instance). He also noted the lack of federal regulation.

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The federal regulation question gets at another fundamental issue – the safe use of marijuana as a medicine.

The FDA is not alone in its refusal to sanctify marijuana for medical purposes. Neither does the American Medical Association approve of it – though it has encouraged its study. Doctors hesitate to approve a medicine that is smoked. And questions linger about dosage, purity, and unpredictability.

Generally, marijuana is not nearly as harmless as its proponents make it out to be. While pot cannot directly kill its user the way that alcohol or, say, an overdose of heroin can, heavy use can lead to dependence. About 1 in 10 people who have ever used marijuana become dependent at some time, according to Kevin Sabet, in the 2006 book, "Pot Politics." Mr. Sabet, a staunch opponent of legalizing marijuana, is now a policy adviser to the president’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly identified Kevin Sabet.]

Heavy use can also lead to serious mental-health problems, especially in young people. Even casual use distorts perception, reduces motor skills, and affects alertness – a hazard in driving and other activities.

These concerns should cause the public to stop and rethink its growing support for legal use of marijuana (44 percent, according to an October Gallup poll, up from 34 percent in 2003).

Thankfully, the Obama administration does not support the legalization of marijuana. And this week's Justice Department directive, which formalized a decision taken last March, by no means lets dispensaries off the hook. The feds will still go after misuse of state medical marijuana laws – prosecuting, for instance, providers that serve minors, launder money, or illegally possess firearms.

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

All well and good. The problem is, the line between legal and illegal regarding marijuana is fading year by year. The pro-pot groups would rub it out altogether. For the sake of a clear-thinking and healthy America, that must not be allowed to happen.