Don't prosecute medical-marijuana use, Obama administration says

A Justice Department memo issued Monday tells federal prosecutors to ease off medical-marijuana users and sellers in states that have legalized the drug.

Eric Risberg/AP
A box is filled with marijuana plants at the San Francisco Medical Cannabis Clinic in San Francisco, Monday.

Monday’s news that the Obama administration will not go after medical-marijuana users and suppliers who conform to state laws is being met with relief from pro-legalization activists, consternation from anti-activists – and renewed energy on both sides to clarify state and federal laws about cannabis use.

In a reversal of Bush administration policy, the Justice Department Monday issued a memo to federal prosecutors in the states that have legalized medical marijuana, telling them to ease off on medical-marijuana users in these states.

Illegal drug trafficking is a priority but prosecutors should not waste federal resources "on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana,” says the memo, which has also been sent to FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

States that have legalized medical marijuana include California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

Nationally, the announcement raises two questions, says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). One: What does the administration plan to do with the federal cases pending by the Bush administration? And two: Is the new head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, communicating with the rest of the Obama administration?

Just Friday, the drug czar said that he does not feel that marijuana holds any medicinal properties, notes Mr. Armentano. In the past, Mr. Kerlikowsle has spoken against legalization.

“Did he not get the memo?” asks Armentano, who adds he is “pleased” about the move. “But keep in mind that this is simply a policy and not law.”

In California, several coalitions have already got 200,000 signatures for a 2010 initiative that would give cities and counties more options on how to tax and regulate cannabis. Also on Monday, a Superior Court judge in California granted a preliminary injunction against a Los Angeles moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries, saying the ban was invalid.

Some activists question how far the policy will actually get implemented.

“The proof will be in the pudding. There are loopholes in this policy a mile wide,” says Dale Gieringer, California state coordinator for NORML. He notes that just one-and-a-half weeks ago, federal prosecutors raided a very small dispensary in San Diego – which he said was doing “nothing unusual under state law” – and federal charges were filed.

The policy “still leaves wide discretion to the US attorneys in deciding what is legal in the first place,” says Mr. Gieringer.

On the question of what happens to those already arrested, legal analysts say there are many unknowns.

“Just because the Obama administration will not be pursuing new arrests for the use of marijuana in violation of federal law does not mean that those arrested under the Bush administration will automatically be released, or that their cases will be dismissed,” says Jessica Levinson, adjunct professor of law at Loyola University in Los Angeles.

Southwestern University School of Law's Robert Pugsley says he feels that those currently being held will be released but those who have already seen convictions will not find them reversed.

Nonetheless, the new guidelines will be helpful in court cases, says NORML’s Gieringer.

“Having a written policy by the current Presidential administration to not prosecute can only be helpful when brought up before a judge,” he says.


Read more about L.A.'s pot economy here.

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