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Confusion reigns over medical marijuana as states and Feds clash

Sixteen states allow medical marijuana for patients with prescriptions. But the Feds have lately cracked down on what they say are abuses by the burgeoning industry. Will 'pot wars' ensue? 

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Attorney General Eric Holder sought to clarify the US position during Dec. 8 testimony on Capitol Hill. But his carefully measured words may not have drawn the bright line that either backers or opponents of medical marijuana had hoped for. "Given the limited resources that we have, and if there are states that have medical marijuana provisions ... if in fact people are not using the policy decision that we have made to use marijuana in a way that's not consistent with the state statute, we will not use our limited resources in that way," Mr. Holder said.

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Competing federal and state interests lie behind the emerging pot wars. Washington is concerned about international trafficking and relations with drug-producing countries, and states are responsive to constituencies who see benefits in medical marijuana, analysts say.

"Given that there is no clear, definitive set of policies at state, local, and national levels, politicians are picking and choosing whatever suits their local political and economic situations," says Matthew Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

To Marta Irvington, the Feds' apparently reinvigorated stance against medical marijuana is disconcerting.

"This is 'Reefer Madness' all over again, edition 2011," says the single mom, referring to the 1936 hysteria film (and unintended cult hit of the subsequent hippie generation) that asserted cannabis use would lead children to lives of violence and disorientation resulting in rape, insanity, and suicide. "I'm legal, I've got a doctor's prescription, and yet I feel I have to slink around in the shadows because some federal narc is going to nab me ... or shut this place down," says Ms. Irvington, standing outside a dispensary in Sherman Oaks, Calif., after buying an ounce of marijuana to relieve back pain.

At least 70 percent of Americans support legalizing medical marijuana, polls show. The 16 states that now allow it account for roughly one-third of the US populace, and it is now available in more than 1,000 dispensaries.

Still, use or cultivation of the plant is strictly illegal under federal law – and courts have ruled that US law supersedes state law on this issue.

The crackdown has been multipronged, aimed at dispensaries and landlords who rent them retail space. In a New York Times op-ed on Nov. 6, Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance complained, moreover, that the Treasury Department has forced banks to close accounts of medical marijuana businesses operating legally under state law. He urged Obama to "reassert" his original hands-off policy for those in compliance with state laws.

Some see politics as a motive for the crackdown, noting Obama will not want to run for reelection in 2012 as a full-fledged marijuana industry explodes on his watch. Others suggest that the pot industry may have overreached: Federal agents became concerned about industrial-scale cultivation and distribution operations that would attract criminal gangs and, possibly, terrorist networks, they say.

Still others say the horse is out of the barn – and probably can't be put back.

"Federal raids and prosecutions might convince some dispensary operators to close," says Alex Kreit at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. "But many more [dispensaries] are willing to continue operating and take the legal risk, particularly those that are run by true believers."

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