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Debate grows over US ruling on marijuana

Order to ignore sanctioned use offends critics

Samuel Bagdorf, who suffers from anxiety disorders, smoked medicinal marijuana at the San Francisco Medical Cannabis Clinic. Samuel Bagdorf, who suffers from anxiety disorders, smoked medicinal marijuana at the San Francisco Medical Cannabis Clinic. (Eric Risberg/ Associated Press)
By Devlin Barrett
Associated Press / October 20, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Advocates of medical marijuana praised a Justice Department decision yesterday not to target cannabis-smoking patients or their sanctioned suppliers in the 14 states that allow marijuana use, but critics called it a retreat in the war on drugs.

Federal prosecutors were told about the new policy in a legal memo issued by the department yesterday. Cannabis-smoking patients or their sanctioned suppliers should not be targeted for federal prosecution in the 14 states that allow medicinal marijuana, prosecutors were told.

The guidelines make it clear, however, that federal agents will go after people whose marijuana distribution goes beyond what is permitted under state law or use medicinal marijuana as a cover for other crimes.

The memo advises prosecutors they “should not focus federal resources in your states on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.’’

The policy is a shift from the Bush administration, which insisted it would continue to enforce federal anti-marijuana laws regardless of state codes.

“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,’’ Attorney General Eric Holder said.

“This is a major step forward,’’ said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a group that promotes the decriminalization of marijuana use. “This change in policy moves the federal government dramatically toward respecting scientific and practical reality.’’

Critics of the change, including some lawmakers, said it was a setback in the fight against Mexican drug cartels.

“We cannot hope to eradicate the drug trade if we do not first address the cash cow for most drug trafficking organizations - marijuana,’’ said Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

Justice Department officials say the new policy is intended to lay out prosecutorial priorities to US attorneys in the states that allow medicinal marijuana. It notes that marijuana sales in the United States are the largest source of money for violent Mexican drug cartels, but adds that federal law enforcement agencies have limited resources.

By the government’s count, 14 states allow some use of marijuana for medical purposes: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. Some medicinal marijuana advocates say Maryland shouldn’t be included in that group, because the law there allows only reduced penalties for medicinal marijuana usage.

California stands out among those for the widespread presence of dispensaries - businesses that sell marijuana and even advertise their services.

Colorado also has several dispensaries, and Rhode Island and New Mexico are in the process of licensing providers, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said last week that he wants to close dispensaries that sell marijuana for profit. Cooley’s plan is the latest salvo in a prolonged conflict in California over whether medicinal marijuana is truly having its intended effect or is being abused by the larger population.

Until recently, raids on clinics typically led to federal prosecutions, but Cooley’s remarks and similar ones from Attorney General Jerry Brown signal a new approach to clear the confusion left by Proposition 215, the 1996 state ballot measure that allowed sick people with referrals from doctors and an identification card to smoke marijuana.

Advocates say marijuana is effective in treating chronic pain and nausea, among other ailments.

Holder said in March that he wanted federal law enforcement officials to pursue those who violate both federal and state law, but it has not been clear how that goal would be put into practice.

The memo written by Deputy Attorney General David Ogden emphasizes that prosecutors have wide discretion in choosing which cases to pursue, and says it is not a good use of federal manpower to prosecute those who are without a doubt in compliance with state law.

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