DOJ shifts medical marijuana strategy

October 19, 2009

Nia-Malika Henderson, Politico

The Obama administration was accused of being soft on drugs Monday after the Justice Department released new guidelines telling federal prosecutors not to target people involved in the medical use of marijuana where state laws permit it. Attorney General Eric Holder said the new guidelines would allow prosecutors to focus more of their efforts and resources on combating hard-core drug trafficking — a reprioritization that some advocacy groups hailed as sensible and long overdue. But critics accused the administration of tacitly condoning drug use and surrendering without a fight in a key front of the war on drugs.

“The administration’s new guidelines directing federal prosecutors to ignore local medical marijuana dispensaries that allegedly operate in compliance with state laws fly in the face of Supreme Court precedent and undermine federal laws that prohibit the distribution and use of marijuana,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), a member of the House Judiciary Committee. He cited a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that said the federal government had the discretion to enforce drug laws, even in medical marijuana states.

“By directing federal law enforcement officers to ignore federal drug laws, the administration is tacitly condoning the use of marijuana in the U.S.,” Smith said. “If we want to win the war on drugs, federal prosecutors have a responsibility to investigate and prosecute all medical marijuana dispensaries and not just those that are merely fronts for illegal marijuana distribution.”

But Holder said in a statement that the new policy reflected a more common-sense approach.

“It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana, but we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal,” he said. “This balanced policy formalizes a sensible approach that the department has been following since January: Effectively focus our resources on serious drug traffickers while taking into account state and local laws.”

Fourteen states have laws on the books addressing the use of marijuana for medical purposes, among them California, Michigan, Hawaii and Colorado. There have been several raids on California dispensaries recently, and there are dozens of pending cases involving medical marijuana.

Advocacy groups have been working with Congress and the Obama administration to reverse what they say was the heavy-handed approach of the Bush administration, during which hundreds of raids were conducted.

The new guidelines are “a huge victory for medical marijuana patients,” said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, a national medical marijuana advocacy organization. “This indicates that President Obama intends to keep his promise not to undermine state medical marijuana laws and represents a significant departure from the policies of the Bush administration.”

Deputy Attorney General David Ogden sent out the new directive to U.S. attorneys and stressed that the administration was not broadly legalizing marijuana use. But he warned that some medical marijuana dispensaries could try to mask illegal activities by claiming legal status.

“Federal law enforcement should not be deterred by such assertions when otherwise pursuing the department’s core enforcement priorities,” Ogden said.

Ogden said that prosecution of marijuana cases remains a “core priority” of the Justice Department, which cites marijuana distribution as the single largest source of revenue for Mexican drug cartels.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) recently introduced a bill that would protect medical marijuana users from federal prosecution and allow doctors across the country to prescribe the drug to their patients, an approach that medical marijuana advocates have been pushing for.

Asked if the new directive is a way to signal to states that medical marijuana should be legal, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that the new memo “adds guidelines to a decision that Attorney General Holder talked about in mid-March and has been administration policy since the beginning of this administration in January.

“I’m not going to get into what states should do,” he said.

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